We are six weeks into 2017 and I have finally finished (I think) my Christmas reading for 2016. Despite being a late read, THE CHRISTMAS BELLS by Jennifer Chiaverini was an entertaining, well constructed read. I first read Chiaverini's writing when I began her popular quilting fiction series ELM CREEK QUILTS. I loved the characters, the continuing stories, the connections to quilts, and that she was a Wisconsin author just made the books better. A few years ago she expanded her writing to historical fiction. I love historical fiction which has been well researched, and find fascinating stories which include real people. That means I should have loved SPYMISTRESS and MRS. LINCOLN'S DRESSMAKER. Both books were extremely well researched, but perhaps that was the problem, as I found the writing in both books a bit stiff and textbook-like. Many of my bookclub members felt the same. For more details check https://thoughtsfrommillstreet.blogspot.com/2013/03/mrs-lincolns-dressmaker-by-jennifer.html.
After struggling a bit with those two titles, I have not sought out her books for two years, but then CHRISTMAS BELLS caught my attention at the library and home it came! I am so glad I made that impulsive book grab. Set in Boston, both in the present and in the 1860's Civil War period, the book
reveals how Henry Longfellow came to write his poem, later turned to carol, I HEARD THE CHRISTMAS BELLS. Steeped in grief after his beloved wife's untimely death and worried about his young son's enlistment in the North's military, Longfellow struggled to go on and care for the rest of his young family. Set against the backdrop of Longfellow's story is the modern, multi-character story of a Boston Catholic church preparing for the children's Christmas concert. Director Sophie loves her unpaid work at the church, but the news that she will be losing her full-time paid teaching job
due to budget cuts, along with a broken engagement, has dampened her joy. Perhaps that is why she does not realize, even though everyone else does, that her accompanist is more than just a supportive friend. Chosen for the solo on the Christmas Bell song is a young boy who really needs special attention this season. In fact his whole family does as they try a way to celebrate despite their soldier father's absence. Filling out the present day story are a grieving Senator's wife, a perceptive nun, and a youthful priest. One might think that Chiaverini has chosen too many characters for a moderate length novel, but she does a superb job of unveiling each story in the context of the church's preparation for the annual concert. And while I felt her earlier historical fiction writings were a bit stiff and "too bookish," her telling of Longfellow's grief and fatherly care was spot on. In fact, for this former English teacher, this accounting made the poet come alive for the first time. And it gave me a clearer understanding of the role a poet could play in shaping society's opinions -- think modern day blogger.
All said, I think Jennifer Chiaverini is back on my reading list and when checking online, I see there are several historical novels I have missed. The reading list for 2017 is growing longer and longer!
Oh yes, I want to end this review with a "plug" for the Wisconsin Historical Society which Chiaverini credits for being the source for much of her research for this book. It is that research that makes this book feel so authentic.