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Christmas Bells


Christmas Bells

Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, is the setting for this story that connects two different eras in American history.

The first is current day, and it is Advent. Jason, a National Guard member deployed to Afghanistan, is still missing in action. His wife, Laurie, keeps telling their children that glitches in the Internet are the reason why they haven't heard from him recently. The kids sing in a choir at St. Margaret's Catholic Church, the setting for this contemporary storyline. Choir director Sophia has just learned that her teaching job will be eliminated at the end of the school year due to budget problems. She's trying to remain upbeat, but it's a real effort. The choir is practicing a much-loved old hymn, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which had its beginning right there in Cambridge. The most famous American poet of the 19th century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the poem "Christmas Bells," on which the hymn was based.

"Countless books have been written with a Christmas theme, but Jennifer Chiaverini’s CHRISTMAS BELLS takes a totally different approach."

Longfellow was a longtime resident of Cambridge and a highly esteemed member of the community. His connection to the hymn is what connects the other time period, the Civil War, to the book. Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day 1863 while he was still grieving the loss of his dear wife, Fanny. She had died tragically in a fire, and he was severely burned attempting to save her. His heart also ached for their five, now-motherless children. And their oldest son, Charley, recently had been wounded in battle. Longfellow had long opposed him entering the service, but eventually impulsive Charley ran away from home and joined up. The Civil War was still raging on when Longfellow took up his pen to write the poem.

Back at the church, in the 21st century, during the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, several other folks are not in a holiday mood, either. The accompanist to the children's choir is secretly in love with the choir director. The priest is having ongoing personal conflicts with his brother. A wealthy senator's widow is finding the holiday hard to deal with. Sister Winifred seems to have a handle on all that is going on; she makes discreet suggestions and tries to offer hope and cheer wherever she encounters sadness and worry.

Countless books have been written with a Christmas theme, but Jennifer Chiaverini’s CHRISTMAS BELLS takes a totally different approach. The message of Christmas appears in the last stanzas of the poem:

"And in despair I bowed my head;
'There is no peace on earth,' I said.
'For hate is strong.
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.'”

Reviewed by Carole Turner on November 6, 2015

Christmas Bells
by Jennifer Chiaverini

  • Publication Date: October 11, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton
  • ISBN-10: 1101984791
  • ISBN-13: 9781101984796