Prather’s Pick: ‘Christmas Bells’ lives on
December 29, 2015
I read "Christmas Bells," a novel by Jennifer Chiaverini, during the holiday break, and even if the Christmas season is over, I decided to review the book anyway. In writing the novel, Chiaverini has woven historical and contemporary fiction together. It's fascinating.
The novel is based on a poem, "Christmas Bells," written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. In more recent-times it is also sung as a carol, best-known for the first line: "I heard the bells on Christmas Day."
In the pages of acknowledgments at the end of the book, Chiaverini gave credit to Longfellow's poem for inspiring the historical elements of the novel, but she wrote that credit for the contemporary storyline goes to the Madison Youth Choir and its director and conductors.
The book begins in present-day Boston where the reader finds music teacher Sophia putting things away after a successful Winter Holiday Concert at Peleg Wadsworth Elementary School. Before she leaves the building for the winter holiday, the school's principal tells Sophia that due to budget cuts her position at the school will be eliminated at the end of the year.
It's a lot to take in, but Sophia hurries off to St. Margaret's Catholic Church where she volunteers as the children's music director. She's humming "I heard the bells on Christmas Day. Their old familiar carols play…" She has chosen the carol was part of the choir's Christmas program.
So even though she's running late, Sophia stops on the sidewalk when she comes to the old Georgian mansion, the Longfellow House. That's where he wrote "Christmas Bells" on Christmas Day, 1863 — during the Civil War and after suffering a personal loss.
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When Sophia reaches the church, the reader meets Father Ryan; Lucas, a professional pianist who also volunteers with the children's choir; Sister Winifred, who can predict a snowstorm; and other characters, too, including Laurie and her children, Alex and Charlotte. All of the characters are involved in this present-day plot that develops throughout the book.
Then Chapter Two goes backwards in time to December 1860. The reader meets the Longfellow family as they walk home from church on Christmas Day. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife Fanny have been married over 17 years, and they have five children.
This Christmas the Longfellow family and other Boston residents are concerned about the talk involving the growing hostilities between the North and South. Since Lincoln has been elected President, there is even more talk about secession of slave states, especially South Carolina.
The book continues in this manner — one chapter with the contemporary storyline and the next the historical fiction, including Civil War and the Longfellow family's involvement in it. The author did a lot of research before writing the book, all of the sources included at the end of the book.
Jennifer Chiaverini has written a number of books, including the Elm Creek Quilt series and other books of historical fiction such as "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" and "Mrs. Lincoln's Rival."
"Christmas Bells" costs $25.95 in hardcover. It is published by Dutton, 2015. You can also find the book with other new books at the Craig branch of the Moffat County Library.