Jean Shepard’s 1966 comedic memoir is most remembered for the media that has since eclipsed it’s prominence. It’s the novel that A Christmas Story is based on. That reputation has certainly gone a long way to maintaining its longevity. When it’s paperback was republished in 2010, the book shot up to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. From an artistic standpoint though, it makes reading the book challenging. It can actually be somewhat challenging to discuss the book in absence of that reality given that the film that draws from it is so central to its popularity.
It’s interesting then just how deeply the film adaptation takes a knife to the original book and rearranges it for its own ends. It’s a slavishly loyal adaptation in places and incredibly liberal in other. Half of the stories in the book are completely cut and the remaining ones are rearranged to take place over the course of a month.
In God We Trust is an anthology book. It’s first and foremost a comedy book but it’s content comes in the form of a memoir reflecting on what it was like to grow up in suburban Northwest Indiana in the middle of the 20th century. It belongs to that realm of literature where in authors wax poetic about Americana and their childhoods in beautiful wordy detail. In that sense, it shares more of its literary DNA with books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Angela’s Ashes than its own adaptation. Its observations are nowhere near as scathing though. This is, first and foremost, a comedy book about a young man growing up in middle class American comfort. His problems are merely normal ones.
The framing device from the book is completely missing from the movie. At the start of the book, we meet an adult Ralphie just as his taxi from the airport is preparing to drop him off at a local bar in town. While he’s there, he runs into his former best friend flick (the kid who sticks his tongue on the frozen pole) where the two down beers and remember childhood memories together.
Each of the book’s major short stories weaves in and out of this premise. The book starts on the most famous story in Ralphie’s life: the Red Rider BB gun Christmas. The 27 page chapter mostly follows the structure of the movie that would be adapted from it with most of its best quips coming from the book itself. The movie’s script subsequently adapted some of the best chapters of the book by weaving their events into the events of this chapter: the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, the Leg Lamp, Dill the bully, etc.
Again though, the differences are fascinating. The Red Rider chapter starts on a digression with Ralphie remembering an elderly activist in New York City wearing a “Disarm the Toy Industry” pin. This frames the chapter as Ralphie’s memory of wanting a toy gun being an expression of youthful innocence rather than some extension of late-capitalist indoctrination into gun culture. Towards the end of the book, there are entire chapters that are never once referenced including a story about neighbors having their houses foreclosed and auctioned off in the Great Depression.
I can’t say it’s ultimate conclusion on the topic of American life is ultimately deep but if nothing else the book is always making Ralphie the but of the joke. The book’s title references a quote he sees in the final chapter and it would suggest that part of midwestern life at the time involved a great deal of distrust in his community. On the contrary, he loves the quirkiness of his hometown and it’s eccentric smells and hardworking people. Admittedly, the book’s purpose somewhat eludes me.
While it’s fun reading the prototype stories that make up the movie, the most interesting sections of the book ultimately end up becoming the framing device and the stories that don’t make the cut of the film. Getting to hear about Ralphie’s adolescent dating misadventures, late night drunk fishing trips, attending the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and adult life as a writer in New York City adds a lot of interesting texture to his portrayal in the film. The chapters dedicated to elaborating on life in the Great Depression or such fill in a lot of minor details in Ralphie’s life that are uncommented on in the movie.
Famously, Jean Shepard himself narrated the film so it’s fair to say it’s not a dishonest adaptation of his work. They’re bedfellows and the book adds slot of interesting backstory and ironic depth to the proceedings. Shepard himself grew up in Chicago and NW Indiana so the accuracy and grit that fills his descriptions rings authentic. Getting to see all these details about Ralphie’s life adds some breadth to his life and reveals just how deeply personal this fictionalized character was connected to real life experiences.