The author interweaves stories from two time periods in Cambridge, Massachusetts, connected by the poem “Christmas Bells,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day in 1863. The poem was first set to music in 1872, and later arranged with other melodies and recorded multiple times. [I was shocked to find so many different melodies for this carol on Youtube, having thought that the version I knew was the only one.]
The story from the past is arranged chronologically from December 1860 to December 1864 and records the historical circumstances that led to Longfellow’s creation of the famous poem.
The story in the present centers around a number of characters involved directly or tangentially with preparations for the annual Christmas choir production at St. Margaret’s Church in Cambridge. It is divided by narrators in a “Canterbury Tales” fashion: there is “The Music Teacher’s Tale,” “The Widow’s Tale,” “The Priest’s Tale,” and so on. More than occasionally the narrators reflect on the very same events, and the author repeats the exact same dialogue, a rather interesting decision.
I found the story of Longfellow and his family to be the most absorbing; I hadn’t known Longfellow was so well-known in his own time – “a celebrity,” according to The Poetry Foundation. The contemporary story was a bit predictable, a feature which is only expected (and even desired!) with Christmas stories. (The author even managed to incorporate another famous Christmas story, “The Gift of the Magi,” into this one.)
The author’s research on the Longfellow family was impressive; I only noted one mistake: Robert Lincoln, the president’s eldest son, was referred to as “Todd Lincoln.” His middle name was Todd, but he was known as Robert. (Robert did indeed have a nickname given to him by the newspapers, but it was not Todd; rather it was “Bob, the Prince of Rails,” a play on “Prince of Wales” and because his father had campaigned as “The Railsplitter.”)
Evaluation: What would a Christmas book be without causing one to shed a few tears at the end? This one doesn’t disappoint in that aspect. Keep some tissues handy and be prepared to have carols running through your head throughout your reading!
Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015
Note: The version of the Christmas carol with which I am most familiar is presented in the video below. It is the original music added by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin.