(1990), a young adult novel by Mary Downing Hahn, is about fourteen-year-old Kelly McAlister and her clumsy attempt to befriend a homeless vet – a seemingly straightforward act of kindness that has unexpected ramifications for Kelly and her father. Grounding her novel in the earnest but limited point of view of a teenage girl, Hahn addresses a number of serious issues without seeming heavy-handed. Particularly, she is concerned about the welfare of the veterans who return from war to find that the society they fought for no longer has a place for them. More broadly, Hahn wants “to show the terribleness of war and its legacy and how it affects everyone in society, whether they're fighting in the war or not.”December Stillness
is set in Adelphia, Maryland, a thinly veiled version of Columbia, Maryland. Kelly's mother designs greeting cards – despite, in Kelly's opinion, having the talent for a more prestigious career as a real artist. She represents to Kelly, who wants to become an artist herself, a symbol of artistic failure. Her attorney father, Greg, doesn't understand Kelly's desire to become an artist and wishes she would take school more seriously. Her closest friends are Julie, a boy-crazy girl in Kelly's grade, and Keith, whom Julie has a crush on.
In her ninth-grade English class, Kelly is asked to read a poem about war by Siegfried Sassoon. The poem contains the line, “How does any soldier forget killing people or seeing his friends die all around him?” Unexpectedly, the poem ignites a heated debate in the class. Her friend Keith contends that war is about powerful old men who have forgotten what war is like. “They make up lies about honor and glory and trick young men into fighting. And the young men die, not the old men," he says. This upsets army enthusiast Brett, who thinks critics of war are unpatriotic “cowards,” and proudly claims he would die for his country. This scene is notable for establishing early on Hahn's fraught and tense conception of war, and the various conflicting ways different members of society interpret it.
When Kelly is given a social studies project to write about a current social issue, she at first wants to do her paper on how God is dead. Unsurprisingly, she is not allowed to write on that topic. She, Julie, Keith, and straight-A student Courtney decide to go to the library. While there, they notice that Mr. Weems, better known as “the bagman,” is also there. Mr. Weems, a homeless vet, inspires Kelly to do her paper on homelessness. Her friends teasingly encourage her to talk to Mr. Weems, which she does, in a rude and snarky way that angers the librarian, who intervenes, chastising Kelly.
Later that day, feeling bad about her treatment of Mr. Weems, Kelly resolves to properly interview him for her paper. She knows she will be able to find him again at the public library, where he can always be found looking at books about the Vietnam War. Mr. Weems suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his time in the war. Over the course of weeks, Kelly encourages Mr. Weems to seek counseling and to accept gifts of food and clothing. However, her overtures only upset him, and at one point, he throws a magazine at Kelly. This act of seeming aggression is all the justification needed for the other patrons of the library to petition to ban Mr. Weems from returning. When Kelly learns of this, on the day after Thanksgiving, she is devastated.
Kelly's dad arrives to take her home. As they drive home, they pass a traffic accident. He warns Kelly not to look at the accident, but she does anyway. Mr. Weems has been hit by a car and killed – a tragic occurrence for which Kelly can't help but feel responsible. Furthermore, at the sight of the bloody accident, Kelly's father has a flashback to his own time in the war.
Kelly and her father have an argument. Finally, at the urging of Kelly's mother, they resolve to take a trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC – a first for them both. Kelly leaves a drawing she made of Mr. Weems at the memorial. Greg finds the names of a number of his old platoon mates and relates to Kelly how they died in a mine explosion. He was one of only a few members who survived; after the explosion, he had to go back to the scene to retrieve his comrades' body parts so they could be identified. He explains to Kelly that, ever since, he has felt guilty for surviving. The novel ends on that intimate but ambivalent note.
Hahn's novel is an extended investigation into one of the least discussed ramifications of war: the way it continues to affect those who survive it, long after the fighting itself has ended. Another of the main themes of her work, which December Stillness
shares with many other novels, is how the lives of seemingly unrelated strangers are in fact intertwined. Finally, Hahn's story is notable for ending before the conflict between Kelly and her father has been entirely resolved; a movement towards greater understanding and reconciliation has been made, but things remain complicated, and there is the sense that there is work yet to do.