Today is Thanksgiving in the USA, the fourth Thursday in November.
It’s one of the nicest of festivals: I found it very friendly and inclusive when I lived in the USA, and celebrating being grateful has got to be a good thing. And on a practical note, usually the cooking is shared and presents are not involved, so it isn’t too hard or expensive on anyone.
Unsurprisingly, it can be something of a setpiece in American novels.
On the blog in 2014 I featured Benjamin Markovits’ The Other Side of Winter as a Thanksgiving entry: I liked the description of a young woman hosting Thanksgiving for the first time - she has become the hostess, she is no longer the young woman flying home. She is claiming responsibility… turning into one of the grown-ups.
In those recent slice of life books like Hanya Yanagihara’a A Little Life and Lauren Groff’s Fate and Furies, it’s part of the yearly round as we follow the characters. I have commented before on a strange manner peculiar to certain novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing, but the year’s progress is marked out by these feasts.
One interesting point is that it doesn’t feature in 19th century literature, and there’s a reason for that: because Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863, and was not a general or widespread feast till later. So there is no Thanksgiving in Tom Sawyer or Little Women (though Alcott did write a short story about it) or What Katy Did.
But late 20th Century and 21st century authors make up for that.
Jay McInerney, Richard Ford and Truman Capote and Suzanne Berne all have scenes at Thanksgiving – it’s the perfect setting for a family row, the introduction of a new and vexatious partner, revelations of secrets and fights over old grudges. There’s a Thanksgiving weekend in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
Jane Haddam’s holiday series of Gregor Demarkian mysteries obviously features a Thanksgiving entry: A Feast of Murder in 1992.
Glenn Savan was a very up-and-coming writer in the 1980s, and died too young: his White Palace had a very memorable Thanksgiving scene.
Perhaps because of its late arrival on the scene, there’s no historical chronicler in the way that Charles Dickens became the patron saint of the family Christmas – but there’s a case for Anne Tyler as the prophet of Thanksgiving now. They feature in quite a few of her books, fitting in well with her usual path through the year and long view of family relationships. In The Accidental Tourist there’s a hilarious and wince-making scene where there is a fear of the turkey poisoning the guests. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant it’s one of the many meals Ezra tries to get his family together for. And last year’s Thanksgiving entry on the blog came from her most recent book, A Spool of Blue Thread – there’s even a son-in-law, Hugh, who ‘owned a restaurant called Thanksgiving that served only turkey dinners.’ No-one writes about families the way Tyler does, and her dialogue is both exact and hilarious.
With thanks to my friend Shannon for pictures of her prize-winning Thanksgiving tables.
The family and pies are from the Library of Congress. The card is from the NYPL.
I hope readers might add some more Thanksgiving scenes in the comments (surely there must be more themed crime novels), and in the meantime: