Karina Yan Glaser. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. New York: Houghton, 2017. Print.
I have to come out and explicitly affirm that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is not the 1,832nd remake of A Christmas Carol. Yes, it takes place right before Christmas, and the villain of the story is an isolated, curmudgeonly old man. That is the extent of the similarity (unless literary sleuths find subtle hidden allusions that escaped my first reading).
The Vanderbeekers are a lively family of five kids ranging from four to twelve and their two parents and three pets. They have lived in their Harlem brownstone two-floor apartment since the twins (the oldest) were quite young. It sits in a vibrant neighborhood near a branch of the City College of New York (CCNY) and St. Nicholas Park. Mr. Vandebeeker has lived in the area most of his life. Though part of the largest city in the United States, the neighborhood exemplifies an urban village where people know each other.
Suddenly, two weeks before it expires on January 1, their landlord Mr. Beiderman tells the Vanderbeekers that he is not renewing their lease and they will have to move out. A real estate agent is already lining up potential renters to show the apartment to. Oh no, is this a remake of Snively Whiplash coming after the Hardscrabbles because they ain’t got the money fo’ the mortgage on the farm?
We could call Mr. Beiderman Scrooge-ish. Obviously, he is spoiling the family’s Christmas and New Year celebrations. But he does not call Christmas humbug. Indeed, he does not call it anything because the family has never met him. He keeps to himself on the top floor of the building. Even though Mr. Vanderbeeker acts as the building superintendent, he has never seen Mr. Beiderman, either. This recluse has TV dinners delivered to his door, and whenever he needs to talk to Mr. Vanderbeeker, he speaks to him from another room.
The kids have developed a few legends about this unseen eminence grise; for example, he looks like a werewolf. They learn from neighbors that he used to teach Art History at the CCNY campus, but mostly people who knew him react with a look of muted horror and do not say anything. Perhaps there is a little of a Scrooge-inspired cold wind when someone mentions his name.
The kids are fun. The two oldest, the seventh-grade twin girls are Jessie and Isa. Next is the only boy, Oliver. Then comes Hyacinth, and finally four-year-old Laney. Each has a distinct personality and much of the story’s engagement and conflict come from the way the siblings interact. If in this one is reminded of other Christmas stories, if might be Little Women with the four sisters, or perhaps we could call the Vanderbeekers better-behaved Herdmans. (And if you do not know who the Herdmans are in 2017, perhaps you are a Scrooge…)
Besides the story’s main conflict, which becomes for the kids a countdown from December 20 to December 25, the other significant one stems from a misunderstanding. Isa is good friends with Ben, son of the owners of the neighborhood bakery. They have gotten along well all their lives, and Ben, who is a year older, is thinking of asking Isa to the eighth grade formal at their school.
When Isa’s twin Jessie goes to the bakery on a family errand, Ben tells Jessie that he is thinking of asking Isa to the dance. Jessie is not interested in that kind of thing and assumes that her twin feels the same way. After all, they are twins and often do think alike. Jessie tells Ben that Isa would never go.
When Jessie sees how her answer upsets Ben and Isa begins to wonder why Ben is avoiding her, Jessie realizes she has made a mistake. Yes, there is psychological conflict with Jessie, but she also sees that it has caused a conflict between Isa and Ben. But if she tells Isa what she did, then the conflict would be between Jessie and her twin best friend.
There is a lot going on in this family in a mere five days. Every Vanderbeeker child has a plan to try to get Mr. Beiderman to change his mind. None of them seems to be working. When Isa plays a virtuoso violin piece, for example, he angrily tells her to go away. Even little Laney does not understand—everyone else seems to like it when she hugs them. Some of their plans end up taking on a life of their own, far beyond what they imagined.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is tender and fun. Yes, it may be the kind of Christmas story that finds its way onto the Hallmark Channel. But, hey, isn’t that why we like Christmas stories in the first place? They bring a sense of hope as the Messiah did on the first Christmas and a sense that there is till some good will among men.