The Ghost of Yesterdays
Christmas Dinner at Betty's
For several years, a diverse group of friends gather to share Christmas dinner—academics, artists, physicians, couples and widows. In previous years, dinner talk revolved around toy party favors and small talk about family and health. This year it becomes a spontaneous and sometimes explosive confession of ideas and secrets of lives little known.
The Ghost of Yesterdays takes us to a Christmas dinner where nine long-time friends gather in an unnamed community in northern California. This is the seventh year the clan has met at the home of Betty Crown, a widow, and a teacher of philosophy. At the beginning, Tom Whelan, a history teacher, is not enthusiastic about yet another Christmas dinner at Betty’s. But he and his wife Sarah, another philosophy teacher, pack up their shrimp dish, grab their bottle of wine and set off. In addition to the Whelans and Betty Crown, there are two other couples and two additional women at the dinner. All the characters are in their seventies or older, and other than a retired medical doctor and his artist wife, the guests are, or were, university teachers. Though they share race, age and education, the diners come from interesting and diverse backgrounds that are revealed as we proceed through the story.
There is an element of jokey tension, particularly among the three men, but basically the novel details the conversation that takes place during the course of the evening. As one might suspect, the banter involves subjects related both to the characters’ professions and their advanced years. One subject, for example, is dementia. We learn that Betty’s late husband, an attorney, suffered from it though no one in the group apparently realized it, and we get an “academic” discussion of the types and causes of the mental decline we call dementia.
Fox employs an interesting approach to fiction. He blends the typical techniques of scene description, action, character development and conversation with factual, historical and political exposition. Subjects other than dementia, include teaching, baseball history, the environment, racism, service in, and opposition to, the Vietnam war. Before the evening is over, the historian Tom Whelan prophecies a dystopian future for the United States, and in the poignant final chapter we learn how in the year following the dinner, age and circumstance bring great changes to the lives of each of the nine characters. I very much enjoyed the novel, perhaps because I so closely share the age and history of the characters. Anyone who remembers Sal “The Barber” Maglie and the ship Calypso, will enjoy being a guest at Betty Crown’s Christmas party. — Doug Ingold, whose latest novel is Rosyland
FROM THE BOOK: "He’d forgotten how many years they’d gone to Betty’s for Christmas dinner. Not that knowing was all that important. Mostly just curiosity. He’d recently heard someone say on MSNBC—never on Fox News, which he never watched, or he’d read it in the Times—The New York Times, to which he subscribed—that trying to remember something would keep the brain sharp. He did admit, however, that whatever advantage to his brain there might be, the simple act of wondering indicated a faltering interest in dining at Betty’s. Nor would the woman finishing her makeup in the bathroom remember. He wondered if the woman in the bathroom finishing her makeup also had doubts. Probably both had allowed the dinner to slip, without objection, into the category of ‘custom.’ If he gave it any thought, ‘custom’ had come to mean ‘duty’ with only a remote possibility of pleasure ...”