IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH Retrospective - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace looks back at the Jean Shepherd's 1966 classic Christmas novel.
A good chunk of America, and to a lesser extent the world, has grown to see the fruit of Jean Shepherd’s work as a Christmas classic. That fruit is the wonderful movie A Christmas Story, which grew from a tree called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, a book written by Shepherd, published in 1966.

At one time, Shepherd was a well-known radio host, talking of his childhood in northern Indiana, the basis for the movie’s town of Hohman (his actual hometown was Hammond). Many of these stories are collected in this book, some of which were also published in Playboy. The man had a lush, eloquent way of writing that makes you feel like you’re there in the Depression in this broken Indiana town, playing with the little boys that run around its streets. It’s easy to imagine them being read by the narrator of A Christmas Story; Shepherd himself performed that part. You can hear the richness of that voice throughout the roughly two hundred and fifty pages of wonderful anecdotes.

In terms of his prose, the book is rich. Shepherd writes in a way that comes off as a folksy midcentury style, one that feels like a grandparent is reminiscing about their childhood. It’s a writing style that makes you shiver when he talks about the winter and sweat when he talks about the summer. Whether it’s a firecracker going off or a marching band at a Fourth of July parade, he immerses you in the scene with an electrifying sense of imagery that is positively spellbinding.

Shepherd paints a portrait of a town and a way of life that was very specific to its time and place: in the middle of the Great Depression, in a cold little town on the shores of Lake Michigan. He says that people goofed off in Hohman during that time because there was so little work, so there wasn’t much else to do; it became almost an expectation. It’s a sentiment that sounds almost like lockdown, except we dawdle on the internet rather than in person. It’s an idyllic world that was brought about by the sheer ‘bankruptcy of the bankers’ (as Yanis Varoufakis puts it in his book Another Now); it’s a wonderful childhood in the way that saplings are beautiful after a wildfire destroys a forest.

Shepherd describes a certain period of a young man’s life very well; almost a century later, I had not dissimilar experiences and feelings about the world when I was that age in the 2000s. He gets a certain attraction to what is perceived as forbidden down pat, especially in a sequence involving Boccacio’s Decameron and a lack of understanding of what certain words mean. I also quite appreciated how he described all the little interactions that take place in a high school marching band; I never marched, but I was in the concert band (I tried to get into marching band four times, and I was rejected four times), and several things were the same, including the strange and probably unjustified pride in your instrument.

Several scenes in this book were lifted almost word-for-word in the making of A Christmas Story; in particular, the famous leg lamp scene is lovingly recreated, with some of the original wording used as narration (I particularly like ‘the soft glow of electric sex’). After that is a fair recreation of the original Santa Claus scene, but unlike the film it is near the beginning of the book. Otherwise, the film shifts around a lot of scenes and recontextualizes some others to create a more coherent narrative, and also does away with the frame story of an older Ralphie coming back to Hohman and reminiscing. Particularly, the whole plot about the BB gun is merely a few pages in the book, whereas it’s the bedrock of the film. Similarly, Christmas is only a fraction of a book that discusses events all year round.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash is an endearing look at a time that has almost faded from living memory, and one that is far more honest and far more vivid than most of the historical treatments of the period that I’ve seen. This is the sort of book that makes history come alive, and reminds you that people in the past were still very much people, even if they lived in a ‘country’ that is quite foreign to us. Lovers of the film should absolutely read it, and those who find history interesting will find much to enjoy. Ultimately, though, it’s such a human book I have a hard time how anyone reading it wouldn’t find something to love in it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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