Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini
ARC, e-book, 320 pages
October 27, 2015
Genre: Historical fiction, Christmas
Source: Received from the publisher for review via Netgalley
In 1860, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family celebrated Christmas at Craigie House, their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The publication of Longfellow’s classic Revolutionary War poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was less than a month hence, and the country’s grave political unrest weighed heavily on his mind. Yet with his beloved wife, Fanny, and their five adored children at his side, the delights of the season prevailed.
In present-day Boston, a dedicated teacher in the Watertown public school system is stunned by somber holiday tidings. Sophia’s music program has been sacrificed to budget cuts, and she worries not only about her impending unemployment but also about the consequences to her underprivileged students. At the church where she volunteers as music director, Sophia tries to forget her cares as she leads the children’s choir in rehearsal for a Christmas Eve concert. Inspired to honor a local artist, Sophia has chosen a carol set to a poem by Longfellow, moved by the glorious words he penned one Christmas Day long ago, even as he suffered great loss.
Christmas Bells chronicles the events of 1863, when the peace and contentment of Longfellow’s family circle was suddenly, tragically broken, cutting even deeper than the privations of wartime. Through the pain of profound loss and hardship, Longfellow’s patriotism never failed, nor did the power of his language. “Christmas Bells,” the poem he wrote that holiday, lives on, spoken as verse and sung as a hymn.
Jennifer Chiaverini’s resonant and heartfelt novel for the season reminds us why we must continue to hear glad tidings, even as we are tested by strife. Reading Christmas Bells evokes the resplendent joy of a chorus of voices raised in reverent song.
Despite the name, Christmas Bells is a novel that while it fits more with the holiday/winter season, it can certainly be enjoyed throughout the rest of the year. The title relates directly to the poem, and later the Christmas carol, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the novel by Jennifer Chiaverini takes that poem at its heart and builds around it both a modern story as well as a historical story. Let’s explore that more.
The historical story is set during the years of the Civil War in the United States and follows the Longfellow family (yes, the Longfellow that wrote the titular poem) through all the trials and tribulations that led to the composition of said poem. I had not known anything about Longfellow, I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but I found his life fascinating, but so tragic. There was a lot of sadness during this time for him. While we learn a lot about the man himself we also see what some aspects of the War would have been like for those living in the North as well as on the battlefield as that touched close to home for Longfellow as well.
The modern story line ties in because it is based around a church children’s choir that is practicing to perform Christmas Bells for their Christmas service. While the historical narrative follows one man/one family, the modern narrative looks at several different people’s stories each filled with a lot of hardship and sadness around the holiday, just like Longfellow.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. I liked both the historical and the modern for different reasons. The historical narrative evoked the time period very well and looked at the effects of the War on the people at home and how they dealt with their family member being at war. The modern story was one that kept you on the edge of your seat wondering how each person’s plight would resolve and if it would be happy or not. Both stories pulled at my heart strings and made me truly care about the characters. However, there were a couple issues as well.
My major issue was with the structure of the novel. The historical narrative is told from the limited perspective of Henry Longfellow whereas in the modern narrative each chapter is told by a different character – from children in the choir, to the choir directors, parents, and church people. It was weird for me to bounce around between characters in one narrative, but remain with one character in the other. However, this wasn’t my most significant issue with the structure. In the modern narrative there were some instances of repetition in storytelling between characters. This was particularly obvious with the chapters from the brother/sister and their mother. There were entire passages that I skimmed right past because I had already read that exact thing not a chapter before, which was a little frustrating. It felt almost like a copy/paste job. You can still have overlapping segments, but being from 2 perspectives there should be differences there. They were wasted words on me.
At its heart, Christmas Bells is the story of survival, moving on, and embracing what life throws at you, which can be appreciated at all times of the year.
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Jennifer Chiaverini has written many books in the Elm Creek Quilt series, that I am not going to list here for brevity. You can find the complete list on her website.