Four-year-old Will’m was just learning about Santa Claus from his seven-year-old sister, Libby, who went to school and heard what her classmates had to say about the wonderful gift-giver. In the past the children received Christmas gifts from their father, who lived and worked far away from the little town of Junction. Grandma Neal – the lady who took care of them – sold small toys, sewing notions and doughnuts in the tiny store that used to be the home’s parlor, so Will’m knew about people buying things for Christmas. But now he understood that other children got extra gifts from Santa Claus.
Libby wanted Santa to bring her a shiny gold ring, just like the one her friend Maudie had, and Will’m wanted a ride on a Pullman car. They lived beside the railroad junction, and he loved everything about trains. Just that day Will’m had found and returned the watch fob the dining car steward had lost, and the steward was so happy he took the boy on a tour through the wonders of a kitchen and dining room inside of a railroad car. Now the boy wanted to ride on a Pullman car more than anything else he could think of, and he got his wish.
Grandma Neal had known the children’s father had married a lady who would take the place of the mother who had gone up to heaven, but she put off telling the brother and sister they’d be leaving Junction to move to a big city. She’d confided the secret to a few close friends, who’d confided the story to others, and so poor Libby found out in school she would be going to live with a stepmother, and that stepmothers were always cruel. She came home in tears to ask Grandma Neal about it, and Will’m saw his sister crying. Even though they were told their father had married a sweet lady who’d grown up in Junction, both children had their doubts about getting a stepmother for Christmas.
And Libby had another worry. They were to leave on Christmas Eve, and while Will’m was getting his gift of a ride on a Pullman car, how was Santa Claus to know where to bring the gold ring she wanted?
The children were put on the Pullman, and all was fine for awhile, but soon they both became fearful of the future, so tears were shed. Grandma Neal had packed food in a box for them, but eating in their seats wasn’t as luxurious as being served a meal at one the little dining tables.
They were traveling through a snow-covered wooded area when the engine whistle blew to signal they were about to stop. A horse-drawn sleigh was near the tracks, and holding the horses was an old gentleman with white hair and a full white beard, and he was wearing a fur coat and cap. Could it be Santa Claus? A half-grown boy ran towards the train carrying a suitcase and piles of presents, and a young lady, who’d been seated beside the bearded gentleman, sprang out of the sleigh and rushed after the boy. She wore an ankle-length fur-trimmed red coat. One arm was thrust through a row of holly wreaths, plus she was carrying a great many bundles. The boy deposited his items in a seat near the children, met the young lady at the door, and called out “Good-by, Miss Santa Claus” before leaving the car.
Will’m and Libby stared wide-eyed at the new passenger. When the conductor came around, the children heard the young lady say she would be handing out presents at the next three stops, for the gifts might get broken if delivered by the “chimney route.” Then she told an older lady she was a Freshman, and this was her first homecoming after her first term away at school.
After giving away presents at the trains stops Miss Santa Claus noticed two sad children near her, but didn’t let them knew she saw them. The long ride was making Will’m fidgety, and a squabble started, which allowed the gift-giver to overhear part of the brother and sister’s story. Miss Santa got out yarn and scissors, and asked if the children could please help her make a decorative trim for a jacket she’d knitted for a crippled child. The lady talked about helping people, and Will’m asked if she’d ever met a stepmother, for they were always wicked.
Now Miss Santa Claus knew what the problem was, and she reassured the children there were many good stepmothers. She told them a fairy tale about a princess who had to do hard, painful work to break the spell that had turned her brothers into swans, and then she said there was a way to turn a stepmother into a real mother. When they got to their new home they shouldn’t complain because things were different than their old home, and they were to help their stepmother without being asked. Each little sacrifice would be just like the hard tasks the princess had to do, and they would bring about the magic of turning their stepmother into someone they loved.
She asked the porter to bring blankets and pillows so the children could take a nap, and then she got busy making two Christmas stockings. That required sacrificing a pretty kimono (which I assume was used as a bathroom) for material. After she quickly stitched together the stockings she asked the train boy if he had candy left for her to buy, and she got two oranges and two little candy-filled glass containers shaped like train lanterns. She’d attended a party and had received, as a memento, a child-sized ring (which was just like the one Libby’s friend Maudie wore) and that went into Libby’s stocking. The dining car steward, whose lost watch fob had been returned by Will’m, donated a paper punch used to mark dining cards, and that became a gift for Will’m.
The children were sleeping when their father and new stepmother got them off the train, and the next thing they knew was awakening in their new house and finding filled stockings. Then there was time with father and “She”, the nice lady who wasn’t their mother. Father was home on Christmas, but the next day he had to go to the office, and the children were left with just the stepmother.
Libby remembered the story Miss Santa Claus told them about making small sacrifices to turn a stepmother into a real mother, so she asked how she could be of help. Will’m usually remembered to be good, but he met a neighbor boy named Benjy, who barged in wherever he wanted to be, and stayed until his parents – who didn’t have much interest in him – sent the maid to drag him home for the night. Benjy was a bully who always insisted on getting his own way, and Will’m was fascinated by him. He got into mischief at Benjy’s urging, and when Benjy told Will’m he didn’t have to obey a stepmother, than seemed to be advice worth taking.
Libby grew to love the lady she began calling mother, and told her the story they’d learned from Miss Santa Claus. Will’m admired She – the lady who was just a stepmother – but She seemed to belong to Libby. When he was away from Benjy he realized he was at fault for She not being as close to him as to his sister.
It was nearing Will’m’s second Christmas at his new home when he began to remember the story about making sacrifices to turn She into a real mother, but he didn’t believe he would be able to change things after a bad start. Then on Christmas Eve pesky Benjy came over, insisting that Will’m disobey instructions given to him by She, and he had to choose where his true loyalties lay. That might involve getting into a fist fight, which would break a family rule, and what if She didn’t understand what little boys sometimes had to do?
This is a short book, which a grownup can read in a couple of hours. At times the plot tries a little too hard to get the moral-of-the-story across, and the stepmother seems to be a bit too patient, but the author allowed me to understand the viewpoints of young Will’m and Libby as they experienced difficulties, and I always wanted to know what happened next.
If you’d like to know the entire story Miss Santa Claus of the Pullman can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41604.