Last week while looking for the quintessential Canadian Christmas Story I stumbled upon an article written by Dave O'Malley that referred to Frederick Forsyth's short story "The Shepherd" as a "Canadian Christmas Classic." Mistakenly, I assumed the story to have been written by a Canadian author. Forsyth, however, is British and as far as I could find, has never lived in Canada.
So, why does O'Malley refer to this story— written by a British author, about a British pilot, and set in Europe— as a Canadian Christmas classic? Long time listeners of CBC radio (clearly I'm not one), will probably get the connection right away. Every Christmas eve since 1979 As It Happens plays a recording of Al Maitland reading "The Shepherd". For O'Malley and many others it has become tradition. To me, it's new.
If you're too impatient for Christmas Eve, here's a permanent link to the recording and here's a link to the printed version. I tried to listen while following along, but there were some changes in Maitland's version so I gave up and just listened.
"The Shepherd" is about a pilot on a solo flight home to his family on Christmas Eve. However, he runs into some major trouble above the North Sea. When all hope seems lost, another aircraft breaks through the fog to guide (shepherd) him down safely. This out of the way, the story focuses on the identity of the shepherd. I won't say a lot more, but I'll give enough away by saying that as Charles Dickens taught us many years ago, ghosts are not reserved solely for Halloween.
I enjoyed the story, though I'm far less impressed than O'Malley. Perhaps I need the nostalgic warmth of tradition to make me appreciate it more. Or maybe if I was a plane enthusiast. It's pleasant enough, but I'd not go as far as calling it "the finest-told ghost story of all time" or suggest that it's on par, if not better than, A Christmas Carol or "The Gift of the Magi." I'm happy though that O'Malley and so many other Canadians clearly love this story and have made it part of their Christmas comforts. It won't become one of mine, but that's okay, I have my own.
As with Stephen Leacock's "The New Food" last week, I questioned if it needed to be a Christmas story. Sure it's set on Christmas eve, but is it dependent on that? After much consideration, I've decided that yes, it does. At first, when the pilot talks about the warmth and glow of the cockpit, on his way back to spend Christmas with his folks, Forsyth effectively captures that comfortable Christmas feeling. Shepherds conjure up stories of the Bible, and therefore Christmas. (It's not just a metaphor thrown in to make such a connection either. It's actual aviation terminology.) And of course, there's the whole miracle and hope thing.
As for Maitland's reading, I was equally undecided about that. On the one hand, it's overly dramatic and old fashioned (he's one of those that puts the h in front of the w in words like "white" and "where", as in hwite and hwere— you know, the way we're "supposed" to). On the other hand, considering the time and setting, some could make the case that it's fitting. Seeing as it's almost Christmas and I don't want to pooh-pooh all over someone else's traditions, I'll say that yes, in the end I decided that Maitland's rendition suits the story just fine.
(Did your review a story for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)