Kit's Surprise

Published in 2000; author Valerie Tripp; illustrators Walter Raine and Susan McAliley


As Christmas approaches, Kit finds herself feeling awkward around Ruthie. Her family hasn't really been affected by the Depression, and Ruthie's love of fairy tales causes her to talk about fanciful wish fulfillment. Meanwhile, Kit has to wear clothes that are too small or have been let out because her family can't afford to buy new ones. Ruthie tries to cheer Kit up and sympathize with her, but Kit increasingly finds her friend's optimism annoying and too unrealistic to be useful. Ruthie also tries to help Kit out now and then by doing things like paying for Kit's movie ticket so she can go to the theater, but Kit doesn't like feeling like Ruthie's charity case. One day, the girls are surprised to find Ruthie's father visiting with Kit's parents. He works at the bank that holds the Kittredges' mortgage, and is warning them that he can only hold off foreclosure for so long before his boss will reclaim the house. Kit's mother asks her awful Uncle Hendrick for help, but he just lectures her about how the family should have been more careful with their money. He also insists that she visit him every day, but Kit's mother is too busy. Kit jumps at the chance to do something to help her mother.

Her great-uncle spends the time ordering Kit around and criticizing her, and taking shots her family. Even his Scottie dog is spiteful. But there is one good thing: he had given Kit's mother a nickel for the streetcar, which Kit missed, and doesn't want it back. He also gives Kit two more nickels for the next day's trip. Kit rationalizes that if he didn't want the first nickel back and only cares that she arrives on time, it's fine to skip the streetcar and save the nickels.

When she returns home from her first day of being berated by her elderly relative, Ruthie is there with a present. It's the Christmas dress Ruthie had last year, altered to fit Kit, and tickets to the ballet and a special tea (Kit and Ruthie have a tradition of seeing the ballet and going to tea with their mother the day after Christmas, but Kit's family can't afford it). Ruthie is trying to help, but Kit bristles when her friend thinks a new dress will make everything better. She doesn't want to be a charity case, and is hurt that her friend doesn't seem to understand that Kit can't enjoy frivolities anymore. Ruthie is also hurt, that her friend seems to be shutting her out and shutting her down. They fight, and part ways furious at each other. It doesn't take long for Kit to regret what she said, but Ruthie is too angry to hear an apology. So Kit starts Christmas break without a best friend.

Seems like it may be just as well. Kit's great-uncle is keeping her busy. One errand he sends her on is to get his shoes shined, but when the shoe shine store is closed, Kit does it herself. Uncle Hendrick is surprised to learn that Kit did it, and tells her to keep the money he'd given her to pay the store because she earned it. Inspired, Kit asks if she can do other things like that for him: picking up his groceries so she can keep the money he would have tipped the person delivering them, hand-delivering his letters and keeping the postage, and so on. He cuts her off, saying all he cares about is that the jobs are done well, not who does them, and agrees that she can keep the money. So she makes up her mind to earn enough to pay the electric bill.

By Christmas Eve, Kit's earned a little more than she needs and can hardly wait to get home to decorate the tree. But it's sleeting heavily, and with the ice and wind, Kit can hardly make it two steps before slipping and sliding, even on level ground. She has to stay the night in the dark house, feeling unwelcome and unworthy. Uncle Hendrick tells her call to let her parents know she won't be coming home until tomorrow, but they can't afford phone service and have had it cut off. Kit has to call Ruthie to ask her to relay the message, who she still hasn't made up with. The phone conversation is brief because of the storm, but Kit is able to get out that she's staying the night and that she's sorry for their fight. The calls drops before she can hear what Ruthie says.

But she doesn't have to wait long to find out. The next morning, Ruthie and her father arrive in a horse-drawn sleigh to pick up Kit and her great-uncle (who was planning to visit anyway). The girls' fight is soon forgotten, and they make plans to window shop and have an indoor picnic the next day (Ruthie gave the ballet tickets to the three boarders and one of their boyfriends), with Kit borrowing--not keeping--Ruthie's dress. Kit also gets to surprise her mother with the money, and her mother is very touched and proud. She has a gift for Kit: a Scottie dog pin she'd gotten as a child. Kit's father and brother have also fixed Kit's typewriter, and it now types in a straight line and all the letters work. Kit and Ruthie exchange presents as well. Kit ended up having some down time at her great-uncles, when she'd finish the chores before she was supposed to leave and he'd fallen asleep. She wrote a fantasy story starring Ruthie. Ruthie and her mother made a doll for Kit, one of Amelia Earhart, Kit's hero. And when it gets dark, Kit's family turns on the Christmas tree lights, able to safely indulge for a little bit thanks to Kit's contribution.

Looking Back

With money tighter for most Americans than it had ever been, families had to be creative to find ways to celebrate the holidays. If they could get a Christmas tree or had an artificial one, they skipped expensive electric lights and cut up magazines into paper strips. Or they could decorate food with Christmas or winter themes. Parents might hide a toy a little while before Christmas and give it to a child with broken parts fixed, and many people gave handmade gifts. Some families weren't hit too hard, and could afford gifts and decorations. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, many of these families got some extra toys and food to donate to less fortunate families. Churches and other charities received these gifts to pass out to their congregations, as many do today. Of course, what all the adults wanted for Christmas was employment, and department store Santas heard lots of children asking for their parents to find work, too.


This book is dedicated to "Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, with thanks."

Kit's family, like Samantha's, puts up their tree on Christmas Eve. Makes sense for the Depression--you could get a good deal buying a tree at the last minute when the seller is trying to unload his stock. Molly's family waited until December 22. All three books were written by Valerie Tripp; I wonder if her family likes to get their trees late.

I find it odd that a skinflint like Kit's great-uncle wouldn't shine his own shoes instead of paying someone else to do it. It's not that hard. But maybe he has arthritis or something.

The Rockefeller Christmas Tree tradition started in the Great Depression. Workers were grateful to have a job, and put up a small tree to celebrate in 1931 (no tree in 1932, but one every year since 1933). They decorated it with bits of paper, strings of cranberries, and a few tins cans. Now, gigantic trees, almost always Norway spruces, several dozen feet tall are flown or trucked in to New York City. Surveyors find them growing in people's yards in the US and Canada. People can also submit their trees for consideration online. The tree is decorated with thousands of lights and topped with a Swarovski crystal star. After it's taken down on January 6, the tree is recycled. At least one year the lumber from it was donated to Habitat for Humanity.

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