Two Dickensian Christmas Stories

In A Tale of Two Hearts by Michelle Griep, Mina Scott is an innkeeper’s daughter in 1853 London. She enjoys Dickens novels when she can borrow them and dreams of a better life. She wouldn’t mind if William Barlow, a regular customer in her father’s tap room, was part of those dreams.

And then the unthinkable happens: William asks her to pose as his wife for a dinner with his uncle. The uncle is trying to determine which nephew will be his heir, and William thinks that appearing married will give him a better chance, especially considering his unstable earlier years.

Mina reluctantly agrees. She enjoys the visit to the restaurant and then the uncle’s townhouse, where she feels like a real lady. But she finds she really likes William’s uncle and feels bad for deceiving him. William does as well. Then they discover a scheme by the other nephew in line for the inheritance, and their focus turns to protecting the uncle. But how will they be believed without sounding like they are just angling for a better position themselves?

In The Old Lace Shop, also by Griep, Bella White is recently widowed, but not in mourning. Her husband was abusive, and she had only married him due to her father’s machinations. While selling off her husband’s property, she decides to keep one industry: a small lace manufacturer. She doesn’t need the income, but she needs to prove she can function on her own.

The shop has a partner, though Bella is the majority owner. When she moves to Nottingham to visit the shop, she’s stunned to find that the partner is the man she loved who left without a word to her several years before. After their awkward getting to know each other again and overcoming his resistance to her partnership, they try to find a good working relationship. But they clash on several points. And then they discover a plot that endangers both of them and the people they love.

These books were the second and third of Griep’s Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series. The first was 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, which I read a couple of years ago (linked to my review). The first two books were released separately in two subsequent years, but now they are combined in Once Upon a Dickens Christmas with the third.

As far as I could tell, the stories didn’t seem to be a retelling of a particular Dickens book. But they were from the same era and in similar style. Dickens himself shows up in the last two (I can’t remember if he did in the first).

Another common thread was a “second chance” coin—not a token of luck, but just a wish or acknowledgement for the recipient.

A few quotes:

Real joy is not found in the best moments of life, but in trusting that God is making the best of every moment.

My mother–God rest her– always told me to think of eternity, then live backward from that. Such a view has a way o’ whittlin’ down our current troubles to a size we can crumple up into a ball and toss aside.

His face was a road map of years.

Maybe, perhaps, true meaning in life had nothing to do with outward trappings but with inward genuineness.

Funny, is it not, that one doesn’t know how bad one really is until trying hard to be good.

One quote was overstated a bit. . . . “The heat of a thousand suns burned along every nerve, and settled low in his belly.”

I got a little frustrated with the characters and their choices sometimes. But these books weren’t bad companions for the last weeks of the year.

Book Review: Sarah’s Song

Sarah's SongSarah’s Song is the third in Karen Kingsbury’s Red Glove series, but can easily be read without having read the first two.

In this story, Sarah Lindeman lives in a retirement home while fighting a losing battle with heart failure. Every Christmas she brings out twelve old yellowed envelopes with ornaments with a single word on each and places one on the tree each day. The words unfold the story of her return to the Lord and her love story with dear husband, Sam, a story involving sin, rebellion, grace, and restoration.

This Christmas, one of Sarah’s nurses, Beth, takes an interest in hearing the story unfold day by day. Sarah senses that Beth has deep needs that the details of her own story can minister to. But will Beth hear it? And will Sarah live long enough to tell it?

A couple of sentences made me wince a bit, like “All of life was a dance, the steps measured out to the music of the days” and especially gloves that “smelled of old love and days gone by.” And though the plot line is somewhat predictable, it’s a sweet, touching story and I enjoyed it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: A Patchwork Christmas Collection

patchwork-christmasWhen I saw A Patchwork Christmas Collection by Judith Miller, Nancy Moser, and Stephanie Grace Whitson mentioned at Monica‘s, I thought I might like it as a Christmas read, partly because I had read and enjoyed the first two authors before.

The book is made up up three different stories:

“Seams Like Love” by Judith Miller.Karla Stuke lives in the Amana colonies in Iowa with her family in the 1890s. She was engaged, but her fiance jilted her for another. Feeling she can never trust her heart to any man again, she puts all thoughts of love and marriage away and helps her family provide communal meals in the hotel. Then suddenly her old childhood friend, Frank, returns. He has trained as a pharmacist’s apprentice and been assigned to her village. He hopes to renew their friendship, but finds her distant. When he learns that she is no longer engaged, he wonders if he can ever convince her that all men are not as faithless as the one who hurt her.

I had never heard of the Amana colonies before and found a bit of their history here. The Inspirationists began in Germany, migrated to New York, and eventually established a communal colony of six villages in Iowa. From what this page says of their beliefs, they sound somewhat similar to Quakers, and the returning pharmacist in the book mentioned he was often mistaken for Amish. The “brethren,” or leaders, directed much, choosing who was going to live where and what their vocation or contribution to the community should be.I thought in the book they seemed awfully blunt with each other: I am not sure if that was characteristic of them or the author’s interpretation.

But I enjoyed the story, earning about this group, Karla and Frank’s journey, and especially Karla’s needing to overcome a perception of herself unwittingly planted by her sister years before.

“A Patchwork Love” by Stephanie Grace Whitson. In Nebraska in 1875, Jane McClure finds herself in dire straits when she is not only widowed, but near penniless due to her late husband’s bad investments. A man she met once in another town, Mr. Huggins, has tentatively offered to pursue the possibility of marriage, not as a love match, but to help each other. He provides for Jane and her daughter to come by train to spend Christmas with him to get to know one another better. But on the way the train is stopped by a severe snowstorm and drifts. A man and his mother living nearby come to the train to offer food to the workers and shelter for Jane and her daughter until the train gets moving again. Jane’s daughter has become very sick, so everyone focuses at first on tending to her. But in the process Jane notices that the man, Peter Gruber, whose soul is as wounded as his damaged face, also has a tender heart and ways. As circumstances keep coming up to prevent them from leaving, Jane worries that her one opportunity to save her family with Mr. Huggins is slipping away. But will she recognize the opportunity right before her?

“The Bridal Quilt” by Nancy Moser. New York society couple Ada Wallace and Samuel Alcott are on the verge on engagement: in fact, everyone expects that to happen at Christmas. But one evening when Samuel goes “slumming” in a poor side of town with friends at their insistence, he rescues a young girl from being beaten in the street. When he takes her back to the foundling home where she stays, he is struck with the need of the children, and his life and outlook are forever changed. He tries to reconcile what he feels he is called to do with his life with Ada, and they don’t seem to fit together, bringing him to the point of a major decision that will affect them all.

I enjoyed all the stories, but especially the last one. Each occurs during the Christmas season and involves a quilt and a “second chance at love.” Each chapter ends with discussion questions, a crochet or quilting project, and a recipe.

I had wanted to finish it before the end of the year, but, life being what it is, that did not happen. But I didn’t mind extending the season a bit with this nice, cozy Christmas read.

Genre: Christmas inspirational fiction
Objectionable elements: None.
My rating: 9 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge Wrap-up

I participated this Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge for the first time. The basic idea is just to read Christmas-related books between Nov. 21 – Jan. 6, and Michelle listed the following levels:

Main levels:

Candy Cane: read 1 book
Mistletoe: read 2-4 books
Christmas Tree: read 5 or 6 books (this is the fanatic level…LOL!)

Additional levels:
Fa La La La Films: watch a bunch or a few Christmas movies…it’s up to you!
Visions of Sugar Plums: read books with your children this season and share what you read

*the additional levels are optional, you still must complete one of the main reading levels above

I read (each title links to my review of it):

The Christmas Stories of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott
The Christmas Violin by Buffy Andrews
Finding Father Christmas/Engaging Father Christmas by Robin Jones Gunn
From Heaven: A 28-Day Advent Devotional by A. W. Tozer
A Sandy’s Seashell Shop Christmas by Lisa Wingate
A Patchwork Christmas Collection by Judith Miller, Nancy Moser, and Stephanie Grace Whitson
The Women of Christmas: Experience the Season Afresh with Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna by Liz Curtis Higgs

Oddly, we didn’t see any Christmas movies this year, but we did watch a few specials: Rudolph, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The America’s Got Talent Christmas Spectacular. My children aren’t at read-to age (I know, technically you can read to them no matter how old they are), but my son did read a Christmas Nativity story book on Christmas morning for my grandson and all the rest of us.

I think I am a little overdosed on Christmas reading now, ha! But it was fun!

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The Christmas Stories of Louisa May Alcott

christmas-alcott

I wanted to round out my year of audiobook listening with something warm and homey. I considered listening again to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, but then I came across a collection of her Christmas stories and thought that sounded perfect. The stories recorded here are:

“Gwen’s Adventure in the Snow”: A group of children of varying ages go on a sleighing expedition to their country house and end up getting caught in a snowstorm with their horses running off. The children take refuge in the house and have to try to come up with food and a way to get warm.

“Rosa’s Tale”: Children discussing the legend that animals can speak for an hour after midnight on Christmas hear their horse’s life story.

“What Polly Found in Her Stocking”: a poem about a girl’s stocking presents.

“A Hospital Christmas”: a warm and caring nurse makes Christmas brighter for patients in a military hospital during the Civil War era.

“A Country Christmas”: A girl staying with her aunt in the country invites two city friends to spend the holidays with them.

“Mrs. Podgers Teapot”: A woman who feels she is making her dead husband happy by not remarrying falls in love.

“Peace From Heaven”: Another poem.

“The Quiet Little Woman”: A girl in an orphanage is taken in to a home as a servant and longs for family love.

“A Christmas Dream and How It Came True”: A spoiled little girl has a sort-of Christmas Carol experience.

“A Song”: Another Christmas poem

“Kate’s Choice”: A teenage girl in England has lost her parents and is sent to live with each of her American uncles in order to choose which one to love with.

“Bertie’s Box”: A little boy overhears his mother and aunt talking about a needy family that they might try to do something for if they remember after getting their own plans done, and he decides to take matters into his own hands.

“What Love Can Do”: As two young girls lament the meager Christmas they are facing and share their wishes, a neighbor overhears and puts a little Christmas surprise in front of their door. Another neighbor sees this and adds his own, and so on.

Tessa’s Surprises: Tessa is the oldest daughter of a poor Italian family whose mother died. As she tries to come up with a way to provide a little something for her siblings for Christmas, she decides to go with an older boy who plays a harp to various places in the city to sing and see if she can earn a few pennies.

A Christmas Turkey: A father demoralized by work problems neglects his family.The children want to do various tasks to earn money at least for a nice Christmas dinner for the family and meet with various benefactors in the process.

Becky’s Christmas Dream: Becky is a 12 year old orphan from a poorhouse bound to work for a certain family until she is eighteen. She is sad at being left behind to tend the house while the family goes out to celebrate Christmas. As the clock strikes 12, either the animals and household items start talking or Becky starts dreaming, but either way they tell how they learned contentment in their assigned tasks.

A Merry Christmas: A section from Little Women where the girls give their Christmas breakfast to a poor family and put on a play in the evening.

A New Way to Spend Christmas: An assemblage of people visit an orphanage, touched by the plight of the children and heartened by the example of one ministering to them..

Tilly’s Christmas: A poor girl rescues a bird and is rewarded by an unseen benefactor with a special Christmas.

My favorites were Kate’s Choice and What Love Can Do.

quiet-little-womanI actually have “The Quiet Little Woman” in book form – it’s been on my shelf for years, and I thought I had read it, but as it started, it did not sound at all familiar to me. The book contains that story as well as Tilly’s Christmas and Rosa’s Tale.

All of the stories are in much the same spirit as Little Women: there are morals; encouragements to be brave and good and kind and to work hard and to remember and give to the poor; the simple and homey is revered above the showy and rich. In some places, like Aunt Plumey’s frank opinions in “A Country Christmas, the moral comes on a little strong by today’s standards, but was well received by the hearers in the story. Some of the stories seem more steeped in sentimentally than her books – maybe because the books have other events or maybe because Christmas stories seem to bring that out.

I didn’t look up the dates of all the stories, but the ones I did search out were written after Little Women, some of them published in magazines.

I’ve seen several collections of Alcott’s Christmas stories in print form that contain some combination of these, but I don’t think there is one that matches up exactly with the audiobook. The text of some of them can be found online by searching for the story title.

The narrator gave a valiant effort, even adding a little bit of a whinny to a horse’s voice, but I didn’t quite warm up to her.

But I am glad to have come across these and familiarized myself with some of Alcott’s stories that I hadn’t known before.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Book Review: The Gift of the Magi and Other Christmas Stories

Gift of the MagiI picked up The Gift of the Magi and Other Christmas Stories when it was free or on sale for the Kindle (as of this writing it’s 99 cents). It contains four stories:

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” by Fyodor Dostoevsky
“The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke
“Where Love Is, God Is” by Leo Tolstoy

“The Gift of the Magi”is well-known, about a young couple with not much money who give up their most precious possessions out of love to buy a Christmas present for the other. I have to confess that in earlier encounters with this story, I found it very frustrating. I know the point is that they loved each other so much they sacrificed their best, but it kind of seems like, “Give up your best and get….nothing.” 🙂 I don’t remember if I had ever read the story in its entirety before, though I was very familiar with it, but it did help to do so. One of my favorite lines is when Della tried to fix what was left of her hair after selling it:

“She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.”

I liked that she “had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things.”

And I knew the title connected their giving with the Magi, but I didn’t quite realize it fully until this paragraph:

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones…And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

So, reading the whole story in context, I enjoyed it more. Though it is still not my favorite Christmas story, there was a sweetness and winsomeness about it I hadn’t caught before.

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” is pretty sad, about a poor, cold, hungry boy who is mistreated after his mother dies, and who then dies himself, but they are reunited around “Christ’s Christmas tree” along with all the other children and mothers who died. The mistreatment is a convicting reminder of how not to treat the poor, and the end is, of course, sweet.

I don’t think I have ever read “The Story of the Other Wise Man” before, but I was familiar with it: I may have seen it in a play or some other venue. As the title says, it is about a fourth wise man, Artaban, who was supposed to meet up with the others and take three precious jewels to the Christ Child, but missed the excursion and used one of his jewels to help an ill man. He decides to try to find the Child on his own over the next 30 years, but keeps missing Him, and uses up all his jewels helping other people in need. Thinking he has failed in his life’s quest, ultimately he finds that “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

That verse is the theme of “Where Love Is, God Is” as well. I have seen this as a play in my children’s school and heard it somewhere else with a different name for the main character and possibly a different title. It is the story of a cobbler who lost interest in life after his wife and son died, until a visitor urges him to live for God and read the Gospels to learn how. The cobbler does so, and his life changes. One day when he falls asleep while reading, he hears a voice saying, “Martin, Martin! Look out into the street to-morrow, for I shall come.” All day he looks for the Savior to come so he can welcome Him, but he only finds various other people who need help he is glad to give. In the end he finds that in welcoming them, he has welcomed Christ.

The latter two seem on the surface to equate doing good deeds with salvation rather than faith, but I think, reading between the lines, we can assume the good deeds came because of faith, not in place of it.

Though I am not likely to seek these out to reread for future Christmases, I did enjoy getting a fuller version of the stories than what I had remembered of them. And they have whetted my interest to read more Tolstoy in particular.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)