Author and educator Christopher de Vinck knows firsthand the truth of the Scripture verse from Isaiah 11:6, “A little child shall lead them.” He saw it in his home, growing up with his severely disabled brother Oliver, about whom he wrote the acclaimed memoir, “The Power of the Powerless.”
Christopher has now applied that idea to a Christmas novel called “Mr. Nicholas,” which tells the story of a boy with Down syndrome, his self-absorbed father who can’t accept his son’s disability, and the Santa Claus figure who helps bridge the divide between the two of them. We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Though Christopher has met many parents of children with disabilities who are accepting, loving, and supportive of their kids, a few were not. He said, “I did know of one family who had two disabled boys, and the father would come home from work, close the door to his bedroom, and have nothing to do with the family. Some people just can’t endure the sorrow or pain. And it’s hard, we don’t want to judge. We want to simply support and help those in the circumstance. But there is that attitude [toward] the disabled. It’s much better today…with Special Olympics, with the recognition of special children. So the world, incrementally, is getting better.”
In Oliver’s case, no one knew anything was wrong with him at first. Then, when his mother was holding him near the window one day, she noticed he was staring directly at the sun and realized he was blind.
Christopher explained, “As the years progressed, they realized he had no intellect. They came to Mount Sinai Hospital, the doctor did all sorts of tests and said, ‘Take him home and love him.’ My mom said that was the best advice a doctor could give…We fed Oliver, bathed Oliver…He lay in bed for 32 years. He could not see, could not talk, could not learn. He couldn’t even chew. But, my mom would always remind us how blessed we were to have our health, and to have the compassion and the love to tend to somebody who was so weak and so helpless…The one thing he did, in the middle of the night, he would laugh and laugh and laugh. We never understood. My sister said, ‘He’s probably laughing with the angels.’…It’s hard to explain Oliver, except that he was physically a mess, but he was spiritually whole.”
JB, the boy with Down syndrome in “Mr. Nicholas,” has fewer physical problems than Oliver, but he is spiritually whole as well. JB’s father, John, on the other hand, is not. Though John agreed to have a child with his wife, Anna, to strengthen their relationship, it wound up driving them apart, mainly because John prefers to keep his relationships superficial – and because he can’t accept his less-than-perfect son. It takes the actions of the jolly, white-bearded hardware store owner Mr. Nicholas to help John see JB as the wonderful, loving child he is, with a lot to offer the world.
While JB was somewhat inspired by Oliver, Mr. Nicholas stems from Christopher’s longtime, real-life friend, Robbie Jones. “I live in a little town named Pompton Plains, New Jersey,” explained Christopher. “Robbie Jones’ father, in 1929, started the local hardware store, and Rob took over…He would be Santa Claus in the fire truck. He would put the cutout of Santa Claus above the building…He knows everybody, cared for everybody, would help people left and right…I’m convinced Robbie Jones is Santa Claus..and I did base much of Mr. Nicholas on Rob and his hardware store.”
Another influential figure in Christopher’s life was Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In fact, Rogers’ widow, Joanne, wrote the Foreword for “Mr. Nicholas” before her death.
Christopher noted that it was a freelance job for Father John Catoir and The Christophers many years ago that led to him meeting Fred Rogers before a “Christopher Closeup” TV taping and becoming one of his closest friends. Though Christopher was supposed to interview Rogers, the affable TV host wound up asking Christopher about his family, engaging him in a friendly conversation, and even inviting him to appear on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Christopher once asked him, “Fred, of all the people you knew, why would you want to be friends with me?”
Rogers replied, “Chris, when I met you, you didn’t want anything from me. You didn’t want me to autograph anything. You just seemed to like me for me.”
“We were very similar in our attitudes about books and family and God,” recalled Christopher. “And Fred Rogers is the only person who ever asked me, ‘So Chris, how does God play a role in your writing?'”
Regarding God’s role in his writing, Christopher told me he thinks of the line from the movie “Chariots of Fire,” when one of the young runners states, “I run because God made me fast. I run for His pleasure.”
Christopher has developed the talent and habit of writing over the course of his life, and he still feels it connects him to something higher. He also hopes that readers of “Mr. Nicholas” find that connection themselves in reading the book.
Christopher concluded, “I hope that they’re reminded once again, Christmas is so far beyond what you find in the malls. Christmas is so much more than exchanging presents and gifts. There is that wonderful story of this little child who was born thousands of years ago and changed the way we think about the world. So, ‘Mr. Nicholas‘ is about a little boy who changed the way a mother and father thought about the world and thought about themselves. I’m not giving anything away, they do not get the divorce after all, they do stay together. And the Christmas story is that [simplicity] and innocence and purity of heart and goodness, and the Christ Child, can make the greatest difference in our lives.”
(To listen to my full interview with Christopher de Vinck, click on the podcast link):