Richard Paul Evans' 1995 bestseller The Christmas Box presents an American family in which never a harsh word is spoken, a loving marriage flourishes, a healthy and well-behaved child thrives, parents of deceased children find comfort, and the Christian God's love abounds. Some negative critics called it a "homegrown fairy tale" and Publishers Weekly claimed that it "revels in sentimentality" (Miller, "PW"). Joan O'Brien of The Salt Lake Tribune went so far as to say that it contains "cheap sentiment" (O'Brien). Yet, this modernization of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and William Dean Howell's Christmas Every Day has drawn millions of readers world-wide (Carvajal). The Christmas Box demonstrates that bestsellers often provide a needed affirmation for their readers. For those willing to suspend cynicism, this slim novel can reaffirm a reader's faith in miracles and the importance of the family.
In several ways The Christmas Box itself (as a book) exists as a testament to the fact that miracles can happen. First, it remains one of the few "first novels" that have become bestsellers. Author Richard Paul Evans believes in miracles, and even titled a recent autobiographical work about how he came to write his bestselling first novel, The Christmas Box Miracle. Reporters, however, are often skeptical. After an interview one journalist said, "You don't really expect me to believe all this" (Evans, Miracle 15-16). Evans replied:
Start with what you can see. A twenty-nine-year-old man from Utah, having never before written a book, with no publishing experience, no knowledge of the book industry and very little money, writes his first book, publishes it himself and for eight weeks outsells the biggest authors and publishing houses in the world. (15-16).
Suddenly, the explanation of this book being a miracle made more sense to the journalist.
Evans' first novel becoming a bestseller is in itself a major accomplishment, but this slim novel went beyond that ? according to Evans, it topped two charts and broke two records. "It is the only book to simultaneously hit number one on The New York Times
hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and the only novel to hit number one as a self-published book" (16). In the week of 11 December 1995, for example, Evans took the number one spot on the bestseller list from extremely popular and established authors such as Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and Mary Higgins Clark (Maryles, "behind" 11 Dec.).
Yet, the content of The Christmas Box
was nothing like its counterparts on the bestseller list. The Christmas Box
tells the tale of Richard, a hardworking husband and father, his wife, Keri, and their daughter, Jenna. The family moves into a mansion in Salt Lake City to help care for MaryAnne Parkin, the financially secure elderly woman residing there. "Mary," as the family comes to refer to her, develops an inoperable brain tumor. As her death approaches, she works hard to help Richard come to the realization that he is "trading diamonds for stones" ? in other words, he is pursuing money and not participating in Jenna's fleeting childhood (Evans, Box
84). Throughout the book, Richard has dreams about a stone angel, discovers the letters from Mary to her deceased child in a Christmas box in the attic, and realizes the true meaning of Christmas ? a parent's love, God's love, for His children.
Some, even Evans himself, imply that he created a new genre when he produced The Christmas Box
(Griggs "Pox"). He wrote a book "too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story," or as one opinion piece sarcastically stated, "yes, Virginia, 125 small pages of large print in a sea of white space is now a novel" (Van Gelder, Rich). Evans used what some cynics would deem more sap than one finds in a Vermont pine, and expressed his message in a straightforward way using simple vocabulary. "'My books are not fine wine," he told David Heilprin of The Salt Lake Tribune
(Heilprin). "My books are water. You know, they're just consumed by the masses" (Heilprin). However, the genre of short, sappy books with an unpretentious tone and no high-literary aspirations has existed for many years. For example, Paul Gallico's bestseller Mrs. ?Arris Goes to Paris
, published in 1958, is a "novelette" that maintains "heavy sentimentality" and "deliberately simple prose" (D'Aniello). Like Evans' book, it had sequels and a CBS made for TV movie (D'Aniello).
Thus, while Evans did not create a new sentimental genre, he did produce a holiday tale that has a rare honesty and truth to it. The extraordinary sales of his book can be attributed not only to the marketing strategy that he employed, but also to the miracle of that appealing intangible quality that exists in some books and can never be taught to a writer. "You brought me peace," said a woman in a Cincinnati bookstore who had lost a child only three months before meeting Evans (Jones).
Unfortunately, one of the effects of this miracle was something less than miraculous ? less genuine (if containing any genuine qualities at all) copycats. "Ideally, I would like to think every book was written from the heart," said Tony Weller of Sam Weller's Bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City (Griggs, "Pox"). "But the sad truth is that many authors are just merchandisers trying to make a quick buck" (Griggs, "Pox"). Like many bestsellers, The Christmas Box
inspired books similar to it, even in packaging. Some would say that the similarities were no coincidence. One creative journalist wrote this of publishers' excitement:
Throughout the land, publishers took notice. Visions of sugary holiday fables climbing the best-seller lists danced in their heads. "Go forth!" they commanded their writers. "Go to your hovels and produce a tender yuletide tale. Fill it with wise old ladies and sweet-natured children, and put ?Christmas' in the title. Add an inspiring message. Give it an ending that will jerk tears from the Scroogiest souls. And soon we'll all be rich!" (Griggs, "Pox")
Julie Salamon's The Christmas Tree
was "one of the few [copycats] that did land on the weekly [bestseller] charts" ("The Fiction").
The year after the Simon & Schuster hardcover edition of The Christmas Box
emerged, "a sleighload of copycats" followed, including The Christmas Tree
, The Christmas Letters
, The Christmas Mystery
, A Magical Christmas
, A Stranger for Christmas
, A Cat's Christmas
, and A Return to Christmas
(Griggs, "Pox"). Legislator Richard Siddoway in Evans' home state of Utah published The Christmas Wish
, though he claimed any resemblance between Evans' book and his was "coincidental" (Griggs, "Why little"). Many of these books used The Christmas Box
's "hymnal-size" and usually had a red or green cover (Griggs "Pox"). They kept the price range from $12 to $16 (Griggs, "Pox"). The dust jackets revealed certain themes ? "Love. Miracles. Orphaned children. And gifts" (Griggs, "Pox"). ""Some cynical members of the publishing industry, lamenting this trend, joke that The Christmas Box
should be renamed Pandora's Box" (Griggs, "Pox").
The Christmas Box
not only inspired copycats in content, but also in author profile. Doreen Carvajal of The New York Times
commented that some of the imitators are "clones . . . who mirror Mr. Evans: young Mormon writers from Salt Lake City with a reverential view of the family" (Carvajal). Given the similarities between The Christmas Box
and the copycat books, perhaps the only miracle here is that there has not been trademark infringement.
Despite the copycats, Evans can still revel in the success of The Christmas Box
, and in the miracle of the book's achievements despite the fact that it is classified as a seasonal work. Many publishers initially rejected the book because they thought "the Christmas theme too seasonal," a quality unusual to bestsellers (Adams). The novel may take place at Christmas, but he has found a message, method of expression, and book packaging that calls to readers not just during the holidays. Evans claimed in 1998 that about 40% of all book sales occur at Christmas (Heilprin). The Christmas Box
was able to corner that market, becoming, said one reviewer, "the most popular holiday tale since Tiny Tim's ?active little crutch was heard upon the floor'" (Jones). But the miracle of this potentially Christmas season-only book is that it has found a way to sustain itself throughout the rest of the year as well. Members of the clergy, for example, often use it in grief counseling (Miller). Some people "may not relate to a ?how-to' book but can see themselves in his stories" (Miller).
In fact, a further miracle contributing to the success of The Christmas Box
, and many other bestsellers, involved its appeal to both men and women of many different backgrounds. The skeptical intellectual property attorney who lived down the street from Evans confessed that he had doubted the book's merit, but finished it in tears; his wife reacted similarly (Evans, Miracle
107). The New York Times
interviewed a man who had lost his son in a car accident (Carvajal). "?Have you ever lost a child?'" he asked. "?Someone younger than you are? And it's unexpected? I don't read much, mostly car magazines, and his book just had a soothing effect'" (Carvajal). One woman wrote to Evans about her decision to stay at home with her children. "I oftentimes worry over my decision," she wrote (Evans, Miracle
87). "I thought perhaps I was doing them a disservice by denying them the advantages the extra money could provide" (87). The Christmas Box
helped her confirm that, "the really important things don't have price tags" (87). "I can now rest in my decision," she said (87).
This was not a book that needed an approving nod from the famous New York Times
book review critic Michiko Kakutani to gain acceptance with readers. In fact, Evans self-published because he could not find a publisher to accept his book, but sensed the need for it. The Christmas Box
became what those in the publishing industry term "a sleeper."
Sleepers, said New Yorker
columnist Malcolm Gladwell, often begin as "unknown quantities" ? "Sales start slowly and gradually build; publicity, at least early on, is often nonexistent" (Gladwell 49). In Evans' case, there were no sales to speak of early on ? the book was simply passed around. After writing the book for his daughters, he made twenty copies and gave them to family and friends at Christmas in 1992 (Adams). His brother called, not to offer teasing brotherly criticism, but to say, "Your little book has changed my life" (Evans, Miracle
106-7). Responses similar to his brother's poured in.
About four weeks after the Christmas of 1992, Evans received a call from a woman whom he did not know; she wanted to express how much his story had meant to her (108). "Out of curiosity," he said, "I took a notepad and called all those I had given copies to and asked them with whom they had shared the book. Then I called them, and so on" (108). Evans discovered that since Christmas, more than 160 people had read the twenty copies he had produced (108). In addition to this, a local bookstore called to ask him where they could order his book (112). Evans informed them that it was not published, and the incredulous woman replied that they had already had ten orders for his book that week (112-113). "Ten orders is pretty good for any book," she continued, "but for a Christmas book in February, well, that's unheard of" (113). "'Maybe," she suggested, "'you should get your book published" (113).
And self-publish he did, after being rejected by established publishers who thought the manuscript "too hackneyed" and not likely to sell (Adams; Evans, Miracle
113). Most self-published books have a hard life. Bookstores are often not willing to deal with so-called "vanity" authors. Evans soon learned a publishing industry lesson ? "the retail book business does not take self-published books seriously" (Evans, Miracle
115). However, The Christmas Box
belongs to that special category of bestsellers that includes James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy
. These books are examples of self-published works that found their way to the bestseller charts. Redfield wrote and published The Celestine Prophecy
from his Alabama home and sold it in 1993 to Warner Books for $800,000 (Tabor, 8 Feb.). The Christmas Box
followed in the wake of this bestseller (which occupied the number one spot in 1994 and 1995) (Hippen).
Evans decided that he had no other choice ? "the phone calls continued from people wanting to talk about how ?the book,' as it became known in [his] family, had affected them and asking where they could get copies of their own" (Evans, Miracle
113). Evans formed Steinway Publishing, named after two of his favorite writers, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway (Adams). After finding a distributor, he stopped at a Barnes and Nobel and asked the manager how his book was doing (Evans, Miracle
114, 118). The manager happily told him that they'd sold 700 copies ? "that's as good as a new Grisham paperback release," he added (118). By 1994, The Christmas Box
had reached the number two spot in The New York Times
bestseller list (Adams). A bookstore in Roy, Utah with a total population of less than 10,000 people had sold about 5,100 copies (Adams). "Every bookstore tells me people buy one and come back and buy one for everyone they know," Evans said (Van Gelder). "It's an exponential growth" (Van Gelder).
Established publishers saw the numbers and took notice. In an unusual deal, Simon and Schuster offered $4.2 million for hardcover and soft-cover rights to the prequel and the hardcover rights to The Christmas Box
, still allowing him to publish the soft-cover of the original book (Tabor, 8 Feb.). For Evans, who at one point had struggled to make ends meet, this was a miracle (Evans, Miracle
What remains miraculous to some, however, is how an explicitly Christian book could rake in sales in a 1990s American culture that made books like Howard Stern's Miss America competition for The Christmas Box
during the holiday season (Maryles, "behind" 1 Jan.). In addition, Evans' seasonal tale, unlike many, is "steeped in specific Christian imagery and belief as the author draws on the drama of Jesus as God's sacrifice for the world's sins, and of his crucifixion and resurrection" ("PW"). The 1902 bestseller The Blue Flower can offer insight into why Evans' book was popular despite its religious tones. The Blue Flower came at a time when Americans were shifting away from religion, but still managed to sell well (McMahon). The bestsellers database entry on the book credits its high sales to two aspects of the work: it was easy to read, and did not clobber the reader with religion on every page (McMahon). The Christmas Box
followed suit, though it retained imagery and symbolism to keep its message ever-present in the readers' minds. For example, Evans chooses the name "Mary" (reminiscent of the Virgin Mary) for the elderly woman who teaches Richard the meaning of Christmas. "Mary loved with the pure, sweet love of a mother," he wrote, "a love so deep that it becomes the allegory for all other love" (Evans, Box
However, while Evans is a devout Mormon, he chose not to target a specific denomination in the The Christmas Box
. Evans and other Mormon writers have found a way not to "alienate" those not of the Mormon faith," says Guy Lebeda, literary coordinator for the Utah Arts Council (Griggs, "Why little"). This "reverent little domestic tale" appeals to many Christian denominations (Kirkus). "?Catholics are sure I'm Catholic; Presbyterians think I'm Presbyterian,'" Evans said (Donahue, "Christmas Box surprise").
While The Christmas Box
affirmed belief in miracles through the multiple examples described above, as a bestseller it also affirmed that the American family had not died. The 1990s were a decade concerned with reviving what were perceived to be dwindling family values, and while The Christmas Box
spoke to parents who had lost children, as a bestseller it "also crystallize[d] a national yearning for family" in those "fragmented" years (Donahue, "Christmas Box surprise"). CNN reported Census Bureau population analyst Ken Bryson in 1998 as saying that, "Married couples with children under 18 fell from about 50 percent to 37 percent of all families between 1970 and 1990" ("Decline of"). The Christmas Box
resuscitated the image of the average American family (mother, father, child), perhaps affirming a desire for a return to the more traditional family unit. Indeed, in 1998, the Census Bureau reported that, "The perceived decline in the American family is vanishing and the '90s represents a stabilization period" ("Decline of"). This book, Sharon Kelly Roth of Books & Co. in Dayton, Ohio told USA Today, gave "people permission to be with their children" (Donahue, "Christmas Box surprise"). "It recognizes the importance of childhood . . . and the family unit" (Donahue, "Christmas Box surprise").
In essence, like Mario Puzo's bestselling novel The Godfather, The Christmas Box
reaffirmed for many Americans the importance of the family. "I just want people to know that there are fathers out there who care about their children and husbands who love their wives," said Evans (Adams). Evans' book directly contradicts the idea that this is, as Madonna sings, a "material world." "Only in understanding and accepting our divine life purpose can we view the world as it really is and free ourselves from the pursuit of the ?perfect life' as painted by Madison Avenue and other paradigm engineers, and pursue instead the perfect life experience?a divine education?so we can evolve as spiritual beings," said Evans (Evans, Miracle
21). For some, the latter might be a bit intense, and thus reporter Matt Roush's analysis of The Christmas Box
may be easier to swallow ? "Work: ba-a-a-a-d. Family: go-o-o-o-o-d" (Roush). "The religion-steeped moral of The Christmas Box
, that hot bookstore novelty, could not make a more simple and direct appeal to the holiday hearts of stressed-out and overachieving dads and moms everywhere," said Roush. The protagonist of The Christmas Box
confirms Roush's analysis ? "Mary knew," he said, "that in my quest for success in this world I had been trading diamonds for stones" (Evans, Box
84). "She knew, and she loved me enough to help me see. Mary had given me the greatest gift of Christmas. My daughter's childhood" (84).
The miracles and concentration on family in this book healed some of the wounds with which Americans, and people around the world, try to cope. Evans has used the money earned from this book to continue the healing that it began, expanding the concept of "family" to include all people in a human family. For example, upon hearing that grieving women had been searching the cemetery in Salt Lake City for the angel statue that he mentioned in his book, he commissioned a statue so that they would no longer look in vain (Maryles, "behind" 11 Dec.). It has "become a point of pilgrimage," wrote one reporter (Adams). The statue, says child bereavement specialist Kathleen Hansen, provides a "place to go where there are other parents who've gone through the same thing" (Griffin).
Evans has also created the Christmas Box House International to aid children. "He's doing this out of the goodness of his heart," said former colleague Evan Twede (qtd. in Carvajal). "He doesn't need the money and he's on a mission to heal people" (qtd. in Carvajal). The latter is a refreshing message, one that continues to help The Christmas Box
sell each year ? "Sure as snow in the Unitas," said Brandon Griggs of The Salt Lake Tribune
in 1998, "it resurfaces on the best-seller lists each holiday season" (Griggs, "Evans Adds").
"Life is not a solitary affair and was never meant to be," said Evans (Evans, Miracle
24). "On our individual journeys there are companions placed along the trail, fellow sojourners who forever alter our paths and help determine our destination," said Evans (24). Evans has altered many paths, and hopes to continue to do so with the eleven other books that he has since published.
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