Reviews of two books for this season, as published last year in the Woman Alive book club.
I wasn’t sure I’d like Walking Backwards to Christmas when I picked it up. I’ve read a fair number of first-person narratives from biblical characters over the past few years as this genre has gained in popularity. Sometimes the books work; sometimes, not so much. But in the hands of Bishop Stephen Cottrell, these narratives sing. I highly recommend reading this during Advent or the Christmas season.
He moves through the Christmas story backwards, as it were, starting with Anna in the temple, moving to Rachel, a mother of one of the slaughtered first-born sons, then to (among others) Herod, the innkeeper’s wife, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Mary, and finally to two prominent Old Testament figures, Isaiah and Moses. I found their stories moving and thought-provoking, impressed that the author imagined such different characters and voices in each chapter.
What’s refreshing is that he addresses the dark components of the story; for instance, the chapter by Rachel is piercing in her mother’s grief. Or Anna’s decades-long loneliness as a widow, which slowly is eclipsed by her love of God. Or the power-mongering of Herod; or the strife between Joseph and Mary over the questionable pregnancy. All stories worth considering, but not often addressed in seeker-friendly carol or candelight services.
Perhaps this season you’d like to escape with a Christmas novella, cozied up with some mulled hot liquid, snuggled by the fire. If so, I’d recommend Liz Curtis Higgs’ A Wreath of Snow. She’s one of the few Americans who can pull off writing novels set in the UK; this one showcases Scotland in Victorian times. (Her secret? Research like crazy. When I interviewed her here in 2011, she said she had 800 books just about Scotland!)
Margaret Campbell is a young woman with a painful history. She flees the family home on Christmas Eve, determined to go back to her flat in Edinburgh. But her train journey is unexpectedly halted, including a surprising meeting with the gentleman seated across the aisle. The story has romance, but it doesn’t shy away from hard topics such as bitterness, grudges, and the need for forgiveness. I especially enjoyed how the prompts of the Holy Spirit were portrayed – not too “out there,” and clearly as something that the person could heed or ignore.
Two to make time for in the busyness of Advent and Christmas, lest we lose the true meaning of the season.
Walking Backwards to Christmas, Stephen Cottrell (SPCK, ISBN 978-0281071470)
A Wreath of Snow, Liz Curtis Higgs (WaterBrook Multnomah, ISBN 978-1400072170)