Remember how I said I got a whole load of Nutcracker-themed books back in June? This is the second one, and probably the one I was expecting the least from. How could this 130-page novella tell a thoroughly sweeping Nutcracker story when there seems to be so little Nutcracker in it? Still, it had something of the classic story in it, and given how desperate I was for more versions of The Nutcracker, I ran with it. Can’t say my expectations were entirely wrong.
Clara Frost has spent the last year and a half waiting for her fiance, James, to return from duty in WWII. Despite everyone’s caution, she still holds out hope that he will come home and they can finally marry. When Christmas arrives, Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer gifts her a hand-carved wooden nutcracker painted like an American GI. That night, Clara has a strange dream where she and James have to escape from rat-like Nazi soldiers, going on a strange adventure that is anything but sugarplums and dancing ladies.
Strangely, it was the more realistic stuff in this Nutcracker fantasy that kept my attention. The first third of the book shows Clara going about her daily routine, how her family and their small North Carolina town are slowly accepting that James might not come home. Clara feels relatable and her frustration seems valid.
It’s actually quite sad to see Clara struggle like that because it’s a genuine, heartbreaking question many military wives ask: when your spouse’s fate is unknown, do you stop holding out hope and try to move on? How soon do you consider accepting another man’s marriage proposal? When do you stop hoping that the newly identified man at the hospital will turn out to be your lost love?
Matter of fact, those are questions anyone with a missing person in their life might ask. When there’s nothing you can do, when do you start to let go? How long do you let yourself live in memories of that person?
Basically, I was thoroughly in Clara’s court…up until the Christmas party and Drosselmeyer gives her the nutcracker.
Clara did not seem like the kind of person to get dreamy-eyed over a nutcracker. I would go so far as to say she reacted like a young girl, rather than a twenty-one-year-old. Maybe it was the fact that he was dressed like an American GI and he reminded her of James, but it still seemed out of character.
Especially when she and her brother, appropriately named Fritz, have the classic scuffle about the nutcracker, and Clara is livid about Fritz breaking it. Those story beats felt a little forced since Clara’s reactions were a little childish.
And then, Clara’s “dream” begins. And nothing makes sense.
Look, I know there’s supposed to be a mystery about the Nazi rats and why James and Clara keep jumping from place to place, but it’s almost too vague. You almost don’t have any grounding in this mystery because you cannot follow why anything is happening. Why is there a weird little girl who acts like a prophet? Why can James jump from place to place? Is it the Nazi rats making it happen? Is it Clara, since it’s her “dream”? And if this is real, how is this magic happening? It makes no sense.
And of course, it tries to pull that “I thought it was a dream, but it turns out it wasn’t” schtick. It’s no less cliche here and does not make for a satisfying ending, even if it is an all-around happy one.
There were times where I even forgot that this was supposed to be a Nutcracker retelling. The ties to the story are so loose that it didn’t even need the classic title attached to it.
Yet at the same time, I liked watching a story of a young woman waiting for her love to return from WWII, and how it affected him. It could have been a strong story on its own had it not fallen back on the Nutcracker story beats. Clara would have come across as less childish and the fantasy less hokey and forced.
Surprisingly, those beats were the weakest parts of the book, especially the nutcracker. Why bring in such a thing when it has little to no bearing on the story? Not once does Clara mention the toy until the end, and yet she still acts like a child about it.
In short, if the Nutcracker references had been nixed, and had Clara’s “dream” made a little more sense, maybe I would have been further drawn in. The seeds are there for a compelling story about a young woman confronting what happened to her fiance during a brutal war. The fantastical elements actually might have worked fine in it. But forced references and a too-vague mystery don’t add up.