Christmas Presents and Past
I was a small child during the last years of the Vietnam War era, and unlike the hero and heroine of Christmas Presents and Past, have no first hand memories of the conflict or the political upheaval it caused. Learning about the events through their eyes has given me a new appreciation for this period in history that often goes undiscussed.
Christmas of 1968 is a special one for Dinah Gallagher because she finally has a real boyfriend. Will O’Keefe isn’t particularly tall, dark or handsome but he has the sweetest smile and most spectacular blue eyes she has ever seen. To her sophomore self, senior Will is smart, funny, sweet and charming. The thing she likes best about him though is that he’s a good listener. After only two weeks of dating he buys her a Christmas present more insightful than anything her brother or parents have given her: a professional chef’s apron. He understands it’s her dream to be a culinary artist, and for Dinah, the apron is not just a present but a statement. It says he believes in her.
Dinah understands Will as much as he understands her. She supports his plans to pursue his own course; his parents are advocating college but Will wants to be a carpenter. He loves the scent of freshly carved wood and the sense of achievement he feels when he builds something. With the draft presenting a real threat to his future, he knows he should enroll in fall classes but he just can’t bring himself to take that step.
This proves to be a huge mistake since the newly imposed draft ‘lottery’ system is not kind to Will and he finds himself being called up for service in Vietnam almost immediately after becoming eligible. Dodging isn’t an option for him. His father served in the Second World War and hates the thought of Will not doing his duty for his country. Will, who has marched at anti-war protests, hates the thought of fighting a meaningless war but goes anyway. He comes home a changed man.
Dinah had continued protesting the war while Will was gone, hoping to force the government to bring back the troops. This becomes one of many issues between them as Will struggles to assimilate to being home after the conflict ends. His refusal to discuss the issues he has or to get any kind of psychological help puts a strain on their relationship. It’s a relief when she gets accepted at a culinary school all the way across the country and breaks up with Will. It’s a pleasant surprise when she receives a going away/Christmas present from him: a hat to match the apron he had given her when they first began dating.
This breakup isn’t the end of their story but simply a hiccup in it. When they reunite several years down the road, they realize that for them, the only forever love they will ever know is that found in each other.
Christmas Presents and Past is part of Harlequin’s limited series, Everlasting Love. The publisher’s purpose behind these stories was to follow a relationship from inception to near its conclusion, giving us a brief look at the courtship and a full look at the HEA. We are with Will and Dinah as they fall in love, get married, have kids, struggle to build their careers, and face tragedy, and as they pull apart and then together again while facing life’s many challenges. For them, pivotal moments always revolve around Christmas. The gifts they give each other reflect the struggles of the present as well as their hopes for the coming years and serve as transitional mementos, linking the past to the future. It takes a lot of skill to cover roughly twenty five years in only 288 pages and Johnson does an admirable job of achieving this herculean goal.
Perhaps her greatest accomplishment is the consistency she gives to her characters and their relationship. We see from the beginning that Will is a man who loves deeply and involves himself completely in the people he cares for and he remains that way throughout his life. He brings the same attention to detail that he gives to his building projects for his family, carefully meeting all their needs and trying to anticipate what they will require or desire. From the start, though, he is also a man who shrugs off his own problems, often dealing with them the same way he dealt with the Vietnam/college debacle; which is to say, not dealing with them at all until the crisis is upon him and the remaining options are bad ones. Ms. Johnson does an excellent job of showing how growth and maturity never completely change this aspect of Will’s character until he finally accepts the help he needs.
Dinah is the perfect match for Will’s strengths and weaknesses. She doesn’t allow herself to be smothered by his love nor does she let herself drown in his problems. Throughout the book, she grows in strength and independence, always remaining true to her core values but tempering them with maturity and wisdom. She builds a life for herself and her family, one she shares with joy and generosity with Will – but not one she ever lets him control. Her balanced, kind nature is the bulwark which provides a safe, secure foundation for her family but she is not content to merely be the giver; she insists on being an equal, respected partner from the beginning. Thanks to that insistence she has the courage and durability to make their marriage a lasting one, even when Will’s self-destructive tendencies threaten to pull them apart.
They make a great duo for a modern history saga because their war experiences cause the Vietnam era to remain very much a part of who they are as a couple and as individuals. In America, reminders of how we treated the soldiers of this conflict remain a great source of shame for many. Will and Dinah help to explain why volatile emotions continue to surround this issue.
The book is not perfect however, and the main problem comes from its brevity. In order to paint a full picture of the decades our hero and heroine are together the author often has to resort to telling rather than showing. I’ve read about a third of the Everlasting Love titles and many of them suffered from this problem simply because the space allotted wasn’t sufficient for the story being told. Ms. Johnson did a decent job of working within her limitations but the story does suffer somewhat as a result of the page restriction.
Christmas Presents and Past is a good book for someone looking to read a love story centered on recent history. The rich details about the past, combined with a balanced, compassionate look at the issues which affected the baby boomer generation make this story a must read for anyone looking for insight into that era.