I struggled a lot with this story at first. It starts with Robin, a little boy who is constantly bullied at school. So his fantasies, in which he is a hero, has become key to his survival. On the day the story takes place, Robin is on a mission to save Suzanne from homeroom who has been kidnapped by “Netherlanders.”
This first bit was very slow moving for me, perhaps because fantasy isn’t a genre I like. But then the story moved to Don Eber, a man in his fifties who is suffering from a brain tumor, and all of a sudden the story turned into terrific read! George Saunders’ portrayal of Eber is brilliant. Eber is at a stage where the tumor is affecting his word choices, so he is considering killing himself before his faculties fail him and he becomes a burden to his family. He remembers the time when his stepdad Allen became sick. Towards the end, Allen who was the kindest man ever became ‘that’ person who would yell ‘kants’ in a weird New England accent at people who tried to help him.
Soon Allen had become that. And no one was going to fault anybody for avoiding that. Sometimes he and Mom would huddle in the kitchen. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of that. Even that understood the deal. You’d trot in a glass of water, set it down, say, very politely, Anything else, Allen? And you’d see that thinking, All these years I was so good to you people and now I am merely that? Sometimes the gentle Allen would be inside there, too, indicating, with his eyes, Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you kant!
Eber’s wife, Molly had told him, “You are not Allen and Allen is not you,” but the possibility that his illness could do that to him terrifies Eber. So he decides to go out on a cold winter day and freeze himself to death.
Eber leaves his coat near a mostly frozen pond, and while he is waiting for his end to come, Robin who is on his way to save Suzanne comes upon the coat. Robin realizes no one can survive this weather without a coat, not even a grownup, so he decides to take the coat and find the person who had left it behind. Robin knows the clock is ticking, and to reach the other side quicker he decides to cut across the pond over the seemingly frozen ice, without seeing the warning signs. So Robin falls into the ice cold water, and Eber who sees it runs to help Robin. What follows is a magnificent ending.
Tenth of December is my favorite story in the collection. I was moved by it, and the last time I felt this way was when I read Irène Némirovsky’s The Courilof Affair! Wonderful, glorious reads!