Jennifer Chiaverini is well known for her quilting series, but in recent years she has begun to write historical fiction centered around the American Civil War. This book once again features the Civil War, but has a few added bonuses: a famous poet, a contemporary church choir, and a link between the two.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a famous poet, happily married and a father of five in the winter of 1860. Abe Lincoln was just recently elected, and the rumblings of war were getting louder. Living in Boston, Henry's life was full of good friends, a beloved wife, and his work. Unfortunately, this would be one of the last supremely happy times of Henry's life.
In contemporary Boston, on a cold December night, Sophia races to St. Margaret's church to teach her children's choir class. She's a music teacher at a local school, and was just informed due to budget cuts her job will be eliminated at the end of the school year. The children's choir is a source of great joy for her, and she's planning on having them sing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", a carol based on Henry's poem Christmas Bells, written in 1863.
At St. Margaret's church, a whole cast of characters round out the story: a young mother struggling to remain upbeat for her two children while their father is in Afghanistan; a priest who gives service to others but is closed off from his brother; a widow who comes to listen to the children practice on the piano donated by her late husband, and a young man who is in love with Sophia but doesn't know how to move beyond the "friend" stage.
You'd think Civil War Boston and contemporary Boston wouldn't mesh well in a story, but I found both stories equally compelling and wasn't bothered in the least by switching from one to the other. The connection of family love, yearning, memories, and a wish for peace and harmony is a foundation that makes this novel a wonderful Christmas read. I didn't know anything about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before this novel, and I'm glad I've had a bit of an education about one of our beloved poets. It does hold true that people are the same, no matter what century or circumstance. We worry, we love, we mourn, we struggle to live a meaningful life. And through all that, music makes our hearts sing.
I think this would make a fantastic December read for anyone who likes a bit of history mixed in with a contemporary tale. Fans of Jan Karon or Debbie Macomber would definitely like it.
I'd like to thank Penguin Random House for a preview copy. I'm happy to kick off my Christmas reading with this lovely, gentle story.
Rating: 8/10 for a blending of two stories--one in the past, one contemporary, that makes sense. Using a poem to connect the two stories is pretty clever. All of the characters are likeable. A novel with chock full of Christmas.