A Lesson to Teach Truman Capote: "A Christmas Memory"

Overview

The short story "A Christmas Memory," by Truman Capote, was originally published in December of 1956. This largely autobiographical story (Capote grew up largely in Alabama) tells of a friendship between Buddy, a seven-year-old, and his elderly cousin, referred to only as Friend. While the story has "Christmas" in its title, the holiday only serves as a backdrop for the protagonist to reminisce about his childhood in the 1930s South. There is nothing overtly Christian about the plot.

Throughout the story, Buddy remembers fondly how he and Friend raised funds for making fruitcakes, and how the two exchanged homemade gifts and flew their kites. The two are surrounded by vague and nameless other adults, undoubtedly relatives, but live in a rural and at times imaginary world of their own.  Buddy recalls with sadness how "Those who Know Best" eventually send him away to military school, and how Queenie (a rat terrier) and Friend succumb to injury and old age, in turn.  The resolution of the story includes an image of two kites, and the heart-broken narrator sensing the loss of "an irrevocable part of myself." 

The Author as a A Young Man

Author

September 30, 1924 (New Orleans, LA) – August 25, 1984 (Los Angeles, CA)

Known as the inspiration for the character Dill in Harper Lee's 1960 bestselling, Pulitzer prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's and the pioneering nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. He is considered a Southern Gothic writer, and is known to have been eccentric, to say the least.  Many people know him for his Hollywood shenanigans as much as his writing, but Capote was gifted and thoughtful writer.

Vocabulary

somber
carnage
dilapidated
simulatenously
paraphernalia
accumulated
cavort
festooned
potent
conspiracy
burnished
brassy

Prereading

1) Start by having each student respond in her journal: Write about a childhood friend. What are three vivid memories you still have of your relationship?

2) Discuss these responses as a whole class. Include discussion of what makes a memory important. Why do we remember some things and not others? What might this say about us?

3) Review an author's methods of direct and indirect characterization. Direct characterization refers to an author telling a reader directly about a character ("Buddy was a kind boy"); indirect characterization involves the use of appearance, actions, speech, thoughts, and responses from others to inform a reader about a character. You can ask students to discuss their memories of their friends in terms of these methods, if desired.

Reading

It is vital to read at least some of this story together as a whole class. The language is rich and descriptive, and students will need to be "hooked" before taking the remainder home.  Discuss the use of the 1st-person point of view, and how this adds to the emotional content and believability of the story.

As they read, have students take notes on the meaningful items and objects used to enhance character in this story (much of this story involves collections as the basis of memory, such as the "Fun and Freak Museum"). Students can design a three-column page for notes: in the left column, they will catalogue items, in the center and right columns they should provide quick analysis of what each object means/represents to both Buddy and Friend. This is a good approach towards a deep analysis of character.

Postreading

1) Assign student partnerships. Each partnership should compare notes on the story, and decide what/how each object represents each character.

2) Whole class discussion of results of partner work and story.

3) Quiz on vocabulary and/or story itself, if warranted.

4) (Optional) Have students design kites from pieces of 8 1/2 X 11 paper. On the top side of kites, students might write down positive or uplifting lines of dialogue from either Buddy or Friend; on the bottom side of kites, students might write down sad or heavy lines of dialogue.

5) (Optional) Have students examine a piece of artwork on the overhead/Smartboard. An interior is preferred (something like Andrew Wyeth's "Woodstove"). Students should note the items in the room, and discuss possible meaning about the home's inhabitants.

6) (Optional) Have students write a short narrative in which they are reunited with their childhood friend (from their journals). They both find themselves in the setting of "A Christmas Memory." The narrative should describe what they do within the confines of this old-fashioned story.  They should use 1st-person POV, and be highly descriptive.

7) (Optional) Have students draw profiles of either Friend or Buddy. Within each profile, students should document textual lines of thought (near the head), dialogue (near the mouth), or actions (near the hands).

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