*An advance review copy was provided by First to Read (Penguin Random House).
The title Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale suggests that this book is a holiday read; it is indeed a wonderful, heartfelt holiday read, but it is also much more. Pretty Paper is also a book for artists, musicians, songwriters, and lovers of jazz, blues, and country music.
Set during the 1960s, Willie Nelson and David Ritz explore the life of Vernon Clay, who is presented to the reader as the man that inspired Nelson’s well-known Christmas tune “Pretty Paper.” Throughout the book, Nelson, a struggling musician and songwriter at the time, sets out to learn who Vernon Clay is and how he came to be a legless man on a cart selling wrapping paper, ribbons, and pencils in front of Leonard’s Department Store in Fort Worth, Texas.
Alternating between viewpoints, the authors allow readers to engage deeply with Willie and Vernon’s experiences and hardships. And we quickly learn that each of these men find shelter from the storm through writing. Writing becomes a way of maintaining sanity. (I was often reminded of Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” commencement speech while reading this book.) Here is a sample of Vernon’s thoughts on writing: “Writing will keep you from going nuts. Writing will save you. So this is my way of saving myself. This is my writing. This is my way of staying sane. This is the story that, by telling it, can’t do me any more harm. I’m releasing it. I’m sending it up into the sky. I’m putting it out there so it can no longer put me down. I’m writing so I can set my troubled soul free” (129).
Although I connected with Willie and his desire to help Vernon, and was glad that Willie highlights the need for empathy in society, as a reader I was drawn to Vernon—and I kept turning the pages to find out how his story would end. It is easy to relate to Willie, and this book certainly offers insights into his experiences in the music industry, but Vernon offers insights on moving forward when life falls apart.
Overall, this book is an easy and enjoyable read. There were moments when I wanted stronger transitions between chapters, and I stumbled over a few places where a bit of copy editing was needed (perhaps some of the sexist language could have been removed as well), but none of this takes away from the story. There is no clarification if this is the true story of the man in Nelson’s song, and other First to Read reviewers, with far more knowledge of Nelson’s background, suggest that it isn’t. I would recommend that readers approach this book with an open mind and heart, and simply appreciate the lessons offered: try to empathize with others, listen to their story, and share your own story through whatever artistic medium you can.