The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
At some point in every childhood, the first crack of doubt appears in the veneer of belief. A child is confronted by a more jaded peer who asks witheringly, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?” The pressure is on. The child faces a painful conundrum. Should he or she really give up the carefully worded missives to the North Pole and the excitement of opening the replies (with their spidery rune-like writing and envelopes proclaiming “Sleigh Mail!”), the Christmas Eve plate of star-shaped sprinkle cookies and peeled carrots for Saint Nick and the reindeer, the laying awake in bed hoping to catch the sound of sleigh bells and the scattering of hooves on the roof, and the joy of rushing downstairs on Christmas morning to find the stockings filled – yes, Santa Claus really did come? It’s a slippery slope, for where Santa goeth, the other two characters in the mythical trinity – the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy – are sure to follow close behind.
In The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg tells a story in which those who retain their belief are in an enviable state of grace. On Christmas Eve, a boy arises from bed to find a train standing perfectly still in front of his sleeping house. The cars are filled with children in their pajamas or nightgowns, all heading to the North Pole. Upon arrival, Santa Claus chooses the boy to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas, a silver bell from his sleigh. On Christmas morning, the boy finds the bell under the tree and he and his sister hear the most beautiful sound in the world, while his parents hear nothing and think the bell is broken. “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”
Van Allsburg began as an artist rather than a writer, and his distinctive illustrations are imbued with a strong narrative current. He borrows from the surrealists the juxtaposition of objects onto impossible backdrops – a house floating by the partially submerged heads of Mount Rushmore (in Ben’s Dream), a straight backed chair with nun levitating high above two priests in a cathedral (in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), or the train in front of the house in The Polar Express. The illustrations have a luminous mysterious quality, often with a vaguely ominous or unsettling undercurrent, as when the Polar Express passes silent wolves standing sentry in the forest. This could not be further from the candy cane and gumdrop school of Christmas art.
Aside: Fritz, a white bull terrier with a dark eye patch, first appears in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, where he is turned into a duck by a fez-wearing magician. Like Hitchcock in his own movies, Fritz turns up for a cameo role in each of Van Allsburg’s subsequent books. In The Sweetest Fig, his image appears on the label of a wine bottle. In Probuditi, he becomes a tea pot. In Two Bad Ants, he is a shade of himself in the spinning refuse of a garbage disposal. In The Polar Express, he is a hand puppet impaled on the boy’s bedpost.