THE FAMILY UNDER THE BRIDGE by Natalie Savage Carlson
Ah, Christmas in Paris. Armand may be homeless, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy the magic of the wintertime city. He is just settling into his cold weather routine when he discovers that a little family has taken over his favorite tunnel under a bridge off the Seine.
The family in question is a trio of children — Suzy, Paul, Evelyne, and their dog Jojo — who are hiding under the bridge while their mother works. Unable to make their rent payments with one income, the family has been forced into homelessness. Unlike Armand, they don’t see the vagabond life as a grand adventure but as a challenge they must overcome — if only they can figure out how. With the whole city coming alive with Christmas magic, Armand takes the children on a walking tour of Paris, gradually — very much against his better judgment — beginning to care about them. Their mother, Madame Calcet, is horrified that her children have taken up with a hobo and that they have been hanging out at a gypsy camp in the city, but Armand quickly reminds her that no one is inherently better than anyone else and that kindness and generosity — not privilege and immigration status — are what make people worth knowing. By the time the holiday arrives, Armand has changed his mind about families and being tied down.
This is such a lovely read for this time of year — partly because it captures some of the beauty of Yuletide Paris and partly because it’s a really lovely reminder that people find their families in all kinds of unexpected ways. It’s set in post-World War II Europe, and you can feel the damage caused by the war in the harsh economics of the Calcets’ life and in Armand’s reluctance to rejoin the civilized world. There is so much hope in this story of people coming together, and it feels like a much-needed alternative to holiday commercials full of presents and “gifting.”
It’s true that this is an old-fashioned book, and the author casually uses some words that we don’t toss around anymore, including “hoboes” and “gypsies.” (I find myself editing out the world “hobo,” which is used to describe Armand over and over again.) It’s a good opportunity to talk about how the words we use matter and how as we learn more about how language can hurt people, we’re able to choose our words more thoughtfully. There’s also a little religion in the book — most notably when Armand goes to Christmas mass to pray for his new friends. Again, this didn’t bother our Jewish family, but your mileage may vary.