Reviews for Secret Gift

Booklist Reviews 2010 October #2
Investigative reporter Gup researched a file of Depression-era letters preserved by his family. They were responses to a Canton, Ohio, newspaper notice that Gup's grandfather, using a pseudonym, had placed in December 1933, which offered a monetary gift and, perhaps more importantly, a promise of anonymity to recipients of his charity. That tapped into social attitudes characteristic of the Depression generation--pride in self-reliance matched by mortification to be seen accepting help, overlain with disdain for complaining. Those characteristics vividly animate Gup's remarkable portraits of the letter writers, which encompass their backgrounds, their bewildering descent to destitute circumstances, and the influence of the Depression on their own and their children's subsequent working lives. A subplot involving the identity of Gup's advertising grandfather, who, for unknown reasons, obfuscated his birth in Romania, also productively interacts with the main plot of what motivated his manner of giving money away at Christmastime. Highly affecting emotionally, Gup's empathic portraits should powerfully pique memories in Gup's readers about their own family's experience of the economic trauma of the 1930s. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2010 December
The real spirit of the season

The holidays mean different things to different people. Whether Christmas triggers your inner Grinch or inspires you to do something good for your fellow man, read on and find just the book for you.


When I think holiday cheer, I think curmudgeonly comedian Lewis Black. Okay, maybe not. Still, his irreverent and poignant I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas is well worth your time this season.

Black—a regular contributor to “The Daily Show” whose Me of Little Faith hit the bestseller list in 2008—makes it obvious (often in all caps) that he abhors “the claustrophobic and cloying warmth” of the holidays. He’s kind of an angry dude, but you can’t say you weren’t warned. He starts his book thus: “This book has nothing to do with those of you for whom this holiday is one of the cornerstones you rest your life on . . . This book is really for the rest of us.”

Indeed. Black spends much of the book hilariously skewering the excess of it all, the overeating and excessive spending. And yet, given his cynical view of organized religion and holiday cheer, this book finds Black in a surprisingly reflective mood. He’s at his best when he reflects on the good in humanity, such as when he describes his recent USO tour in Iraq, or muses on the disastrous earthquake in Haiti:

“No one was worried about being a Republican or a Democrat,” Black writes. “There was no debating a budget. There were no arguments over which side had the cheapest Band-Aids. There were no words, just action.

“We are quick to help when someone’s ass is kicked or when we think someone’s ass needs to be kicked. We are great at that. We just don’t know how to take care of ourselves. We are a country where many of our people are living on the edge of catastrophe if not in the middle of it. Maybe we could turn Christmas into a holiday where we help those who are buried here in our country.”

Happy holidays to you, Lewis Black.


And now for something completely different: a new book by Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s biggest megachurch, Lakewood Church in Houston. In The Christmas Spirit, Osteen argues that instead of toys and jewelry, the best Christmas gift is the gift of our time.

Osteen posits that we spend too much time trying to create the perfect Christmas, and that sometimes it’s the imperfections that make a Christmas memorable. He tells of his brother, Paul, a young surgeon struggling to find the joy in the season. With three young children at home and a busy career, he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in years. An elderly patient who had just lost her husband listened patiently to his woes before telling him, “Dr. Paul, I would give anything to be where you are now as a young parent. I’d give anything to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, to change a diaper, or to make formula for my babies again. I miss that so much.”

“The wise woman reset Paul’s clock that Christmas,” writes Osteen. “She reminded him that he should slow down, live in the moment, enjoy and be grateful for every minute as a parent.”

Osteen’s memories may be seen by some as exactly the kind of holiday treacle Lewis Black so thoroughly excoriates (Osteen grew up in a town called Humble, Texas, for goodness’ sake). But he is so sincere, and his message so simple—spend time with the ones you love, and give to those less fortunate—that even Black might struggle to find fault with Osteen’s Christmas Spirit.


Former Washington Post investigative reporter Ted Gup knew his grandfather, Sam Stone, as a mischievous man who loved to tell jokes and could pull a quarter from young Ted’s ear. But Sam Stone was born Sam Finkelstein, a Jewish boy who immigrated from Romania to Pittsburgh, growing up in a loveless, impoverished home where the children spent hours in the attic rolling cigars to help the family make ends meet.

Sam Finkelstein eventually moved to Canton, Ohio, renaming himself Sam Stone. A successful businessman and father of three, Stone and his wife, Minna, dreamed up the idea of helping those left in dire straits by the Depression. They placed a newspaper ad as “B. Virdot,” an anonymous benefactor who offered $10 each to dozens of families one Christmas season.

After Stone died, Gup’s mother gave him the suitcase of letters sent to B. Virdot in response to his ad. Gup reached out to interview descendents of the letter-writers, and in A Secret Gift, he relays their remarkable stories of distress and recovery in Depression-era America. He opens the door on the quiet shame so many felt in asking for help:

“For many today it is difficult to understand the stigma attached to going on the dole or accepting charity,” he writes. “The shame of poverty was tolerable—so many were in distress that Christmas of 1933—but the loss of face that came of publicly applying for relief, of claiming that one’s needs were equal to or superior to another’s, of enduring the gauntlet of probing questions, of surrendering one’s dignity and privacy, for many was too much to ask.”

As affecting as the letters are, the heart of A Secret Gift is Gup’s loving and painstakingly reported account of his grandfather—an ordinary man who gave an extraordinary gift when it was needed most.


In the Dark Streets Shineth, a quietly powerful book from Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough, combines photos and text to tell the story of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came together in December 1941 to encourage their nations during one of the bleakest holidays in modern history.

Adapted from McCullough’s performance at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert in 2009, the book includes photos from the somber 1941 holiday season and the full text of the addresses that Churchill and Ro[Sun Aug 31 02:28:54 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. osevelt delivered from a White House balcony at the lighting of the national Christmas tree.

“This is a strange Christmas Eve,” Churchill told a crowd of 20,000 gathered on the White House lawn. “Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. . . .

“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us. . . .”

McCullough—best known for his biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams—also meditates on how classic American Christmas carols figured during this dark time. Although the two subjects seem slightly disjointed, McCullough manages to weave them together, and there’s no denying he perfectly evokes the uncertainty and fear of the time in this beautifully designed book.

Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 July #1

Former investigative reporter Gup (Journalism/Emerson Coll.; Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life, 2007, etc.) unravels the knotty but fascinating story of an anonymous act of benevolence performed in an Ohio town imploding under the pressure of the Great Depression.

In 2008, the author received an unlikely treasure from his elderly mother: an old suitcase that once belonged to his grandfather. Inside, Gup discovered a cache of letters and cancelled checks, all involving a man named B. Virdot, who, during Christmas 1933, placed a notice in the Canton Repository announcing that he would present 75 families with $10 each—a considerable sum in 1930s America—if they explained their need. So many applied that Virdot altered the amount to $5 and helped 150 families. Gup quickly realized that his own grandfather was B. Virdot—a name fashioned from the names of his daughters. During the next couple years, the author sought every remaining thread of this compelling tale. He visited surviving family members, found the lone surviving letter writer, visited libraries and cemeteries and historical societies, interviewed more than 500 people, scoured the Internet and pursued another story—that of his grandfather. Known as "Sam Stone," owner of a clothing store in Canton, he was actually a Romanian Jewish immigrant named Sam Finkelstein who lied for decades about his biography. Gup artfully weaves together the stories of the recipients (and their descendants) and the story of his grandfather, gradually revealing as much as he was able to discover about him. At age 93, Stone died in Florida in a freak car accident on a drawbridge and took to the grave the story of "B. Virdot." Only occasionally does the author veer into the maudlin and predictable.

Wrenching stories of suffering, loss, endurance, humility and gratitude.

Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 September #2

Former investigative reporter Gup (journalism, Emerson Coll.; Nation of Secrets) presents a compelling story of charity and perseverance. He provides a snapshot of life in Canton, OH, during the Great Depression and relays his discovery, after finding a "trove of letters" addressed to one B. Virdot, of missing pieces of his grandfather's life. B. Virdot turns out to have been an alias used by his grandfather, clothing store owner Sam Stone, as he gifted several families with $5--a significant sum during the Great Depression. Initially, these acts of kindness appear random and reveal little about an enigmatic yet caring man. However, it is through the thank-you letters from families touched by the kindness of B. Virdot--and through Gup's relentless quest for answers--that readers learn the full story of Sam Stone. VERDICT Although history buffs won't find new ground covered, Gup's narrative style combined with first-person accounts and profiles of the recipient families put a human face on this part of history and make this an inspiring and informative read, best for history novices.--Tamela Chambers, Chicago P.L.

[Page 85]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 September #1
In a book grown out of a New York Times op-ed piece that drew a huge response, Gup (The Book of Honor) explores an unusual act of generosity by his grandfather, Sam Stone, during the Great Depression and other mysteries of Stone's life. Discovering a trunk full of old letters addressed to "Mr. B. Virdot," Gup soon learned that the letters were responses to a newspaper ad Stone ran before Christmas 1933, anonymously promising $10 to 75 of Canton, Ohio's neediest families if they wrote letters describing their hardships. (Some of the heartbreaking letters are reprinted here.) But Gup soon learns that Stone had other secrets: the jovial, wealthy businessman had escaped a horrific childhood as a Romanian Jew, immigrating to America and reinventing himself to fit into all-American Canton, Ohio. Gup also tracked down families who benefited from Stone's gift to discover the impact it had on their lives. Gup paints sobering pictures of "the Hard Times" and the gift made by a successful man who hadn't forgotten his own hard times. (Nov.) Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC