Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past: A Ballad Novella *****

norabonesteelI’m a long-time fan of Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novels (and now a novella); they are sure fire hits. Thank you to Net Galley and Abdingdon Press for the ARC.
I feel compelled to mention that the kindle galley was so full of formatting issues as to render it unreadable. I hope the publishers will correct this issue before it is released. I was able to read it with no trouble at all once I moved it to my desk top.

But back to our story.

We have parallel stories, and the setting is Christmas, of course. The story lines, one of Christmas present, which features Sheriff Arrowroot being ordered to drag an elderly man to jail on Christmas Eve, appears to have a dead-sure predictable ending, except that it doesn’t. That’s all I’m giving away in this case.

The more flavorful thread is Nora Bonesteel’s. The Bonesteel women have “the sight”. Those who have followed McCrumb’s novels already know that, but a reminder doesn’t hurt. Nora is asked out to solve a haunted manse issue for some new-comers. I found this part vastly amusing.

The setting, for those unfamiliar with McCrumb’s work, is in the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of her novels that taught me how to pronounce the word correctly (all soft “a”s, as in apple). Her love of place comes through on the page, and as much as I love the Pacific Northwest where I have lived for most of my life, while I read this, a part of me positively yearn for the Smoky Mountains, which I only visited once as a (oh the shame) tourist. It’s a rare kind of engagement. You can say she casts a spell over the reader, if you wish.

Ah. But that leads us to the descriptor I read in Net Galley. It is described there as a “Christian” novella. I confess it gave me pause. There are Christian novels, and there are Christian novels. Some are so heavy handed that they make terrible literature, from a critical viewpoint: we’re racing along, plot-wise, when someone announces that they should go to the Lord with their problem. A page and a half of long-winded prayer follows. Lather, rinse, repeat. I didn’t want to find myself stuck with a book like that, but a strong writer builds a bond of trust with her readers, and my sense was that McCrumb was unlikely to trash her own work in such a manner. I was correct, and the story is great. The single religious reference is central to the plot and is entirely consistent with the setting. Also, sometimes “Christian” is a sort of code to let the reader know there will be no profanity or sweaty sex scenes, and frankly, I was just as glad to be spared those.

To sum up, McCrumb is a master writer, a mystery champ, and a brilliant novelist whose work with Appalachian setting and tradition stands alone in an otherwise crowded field. Pick up a copy now. You can enjoy it and then pass it around for family and friends to enjoy. The quirky humor and redolent, traditional setting are sure to please anyone who loves Christmas and a good read.

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