Christmas Homecoming
by Diane Noble, Pamela Griffin, and Kathleen Fuller; historical (2003)
HeartQuest, $9.99, ISBN 0-8423-3576-5

Christmas Homecoming starts off beautifully on a high note with a short story by Diane Noble and ends on a truly discordant note with a short story by Kathleen Fuller. In a better world, the order of the stories would have been reversed so that I can close this book pleased as punch instead of feeling like I've been sucker-punched.

Diane Noble's A Place To Call Home is wildly sentimental and the characters cry at the drop of a hat, but despite the tendencies of both the hero and the heroine to turn on the waterworks, the fact remains that Olivia Endicott-Jones and Rory O'Kelly are two very likeable people. Ms Noble manages to get me hooked line and sinker, dang it, when the story opens in Drogheda, Ireland on Christmas Eve in 1890, where Nuala O'Kelly tells her older grandson Rory to travel to America and obtain financial aid from the Irish immigrants in that country to aid the Irish back home who are fighting a war against the English. No, no, it's not the idea of the Irish pummeling the English to the ground that get my spirits up, it's how Nuala tells Rory that no matter where Rory is, she hopes that he will find a home that he can call his own. It's the way Ms Noble puts the words in Nuala's mouth that makes me sigh.

And then over at Boston, Massachusetts, Dr Olivia Endicott-Jones hesitates as a tearful dying mother asks her to take care of the infant Madelein Mary McGrail. Hey, don't look at me, I'm the one who cried when Fantine sang her death lament to Jean Valjean begging him to take care of Cosette in that dang musical based on Victor Hugo's Les MisÚrables so I have a good excuse here. Olivia's well-off parents are already not pleased that she is consorting with the poor and the downtrodden in the Trinity Settlement House, so when she shows up with the baby, her father issues an ultimatum that causes her to pack her bags and take herself and the baby off to her hospice where she'll stay for a while as she decides what she should do next. Meanwhile, the fact that she is taking in an Irish infant is causing some ripples among the Irish community in Boston, so Rory finds himself shoved forward as a negotiator to take baby Maddie back to where she "belongs".

He quickly realizes that Olivia truly cares for Maddie and even starts defending her against the prejudices of his own people. Meanwhile, the conflict back in Ireland starts to heat up even as Olivia finds two more orphans on her doorsteps. It's Christmas, everyone is frantic with his or her own concerns, so is there any time or room for love?

As I've mentioned earlier, this story is wildly sentimental, it's like Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World being played in constant rotation as I am trapped in a party of piteous little match girls, dying puppies, lame kids barely balanced on crutches, and talented ballerinas stricken with terminal cancer. However, even when the sugar goes into near-fatal insanely high levels, I find myself captivated with the poetry of such sugar shock. Olivia and Rory are two very appealing characters whose goodness radiate like a warm beacon. It's not that these two are perfect as much as they always try to do the right thing and I find such an unabashed desire to help people and live life according to the Good Book most refreshing and even heartwarming. Ms Noble doesn't preach as much as she has her characters confronting issues that test their faith, which is nice, and even towards the end when the story rushes to an ending at a very accelerated pace, I finish the story with a big smile on my face.

The reason why I enjoy this story despite it normally being too sentimental for my tastes is that the story is sentimental without becoming overbearing. The kids in this story behave like kids rather than creepy matchmaking adults in midget bodies and the characters don't go out of their way to be cute or precious. The secondary adult characters don't intrude or becoming psychotically overzealous matchmakers. Even Olivia's father ends up being a haughty and stubborn man rather than a caricature villain. The sentimental aspects of this story comes instead in the form of Olivia struggling and even crying as she tries to do what she feels is right with the orphans left in her care and Rory trying to come to terms with his role as a patriotic soldier of Ireland whose weapon is his pen and not a gun. The resolution of this story is sentimental because it is very convenient and it miraculously gets everyone in good terms and loving everyone else again just in time for Christmas. But hey, it is Christmas, after all, so I'm okay with everything Ms Noble is throwing at me.

And how can I resist scenes like this one?

Ballybofey and Dunkineely, what was this Irishman to do? Here he was, just standing there, gazing at the moonlit upturned face of the most beautiful woman God surely ever created, wanting desperately to declare his love. Yet the very emotion had rendered him... well, speechless. And for a man who prided himself on his way with words, the unsettling condition he found himself in made his knees tremble and his heart thud so fast he nearly lost his ability to breathe.

Or this one?

He bent closer. "The lad might say - if he could be heard above the loud thumping of his heart - he might say that there's never been a moment the lass has been out of his thoughts since he first set eyes on her... that the glow of happiness that sweeps through him every time they meet is brighter than the noonday sun... that..." He stopped and gave her a sheepish grin. "'Tis time to speaking in riddles and tell you true, Liv, what's in this Irishman's heart of hearts."

I know, what lurid sentimental tripe, eh? So why indeed does this cynical and bitter old heart of mine actually beat a little faster as I sigh with every nonsensical tripe that comes out of Rory's mouth? This story makes me so mushed-up inside that I don't know which way is up or down anymore, heh.

Pamela Griffin's The Heart Of A Stranger could have been a very good read too. Justin Rossiter was an ex-outlaw who has found God and today he returns home to seek his father's forgiveness for his running away with a bunch of outlaws when Justin was fourteen. Perhaps it was the years that have passed since he was that kid that have changed Justin considerably to the point that his innocent childhood crush Susannah Pruitt can't recognize him when they meet again after all these years just as he can't immediately recognize him. The problem standing between the two lovebirds is that she believes that he shot and killed her father in his first train heist all those years ago.

Susannah has grown up to be a little bit ladylike but is still mostly the tomboy that she was back then. In this case, Susannah isn't some dingbat hellion who wants to do everything even if she can't do anything right like a typical hellion would have been in a romance novel. Instead, being a tomboy means that she can ride and shoot. Isn't that nice?

This story about forgiveness could have been a good read if the author hasn't taken the easy way out by forcing a very obvious Deus Ex Machina in the form of a crippled too-sage little girl who says all those creepy adult things to make Susannah and Justin see the light instead of letting the two characters put on boxing gloves and duke it out among themselves. The Crippled Martyr soon overwhelms the story to the point that she is fixing everybody's problems. As a result, this story ends up being as sentimental as the previous story could have been but with such an artificial storyline powered by a very contrived placeholder for the author's inner Mary Sue, The Heart Of A Stranger ends up becoming too cloying to the point that I actually nauseous after one too many scenes of the Crippled Martyr trying too hard to be cute and sage all at once.

And then comes the big whammy, Kathleen Fuller's Christmas Legacy, which is not only one of my most favorite kind of stories ever, the Let's Punish The Woman For Daring To Move To The City rubbish, but also has the temerity to be completely logic-free while featuring a total jackass for a hero.

Josephine Patterson dares to marry a politician from Washington so now she is bankrupt and abandoned by her friends and her in-laws after her philandering husband died. She receives news that her recently deceased grandmother Wilma had included Josephine in her will so Josephine rushes back to the smalltown that holds painful memories for her, hoping that she will find some money to pay off the debts her husband saddled her with. Alas, Wilma is one of those stupid characters that wanted to play matchmaker from beyond so she left the farm to Josephine as well as the widower Ben Akers and his ready-made family. If Josephine wants to sell the farm, she will have to convince Ben to agree as well. Ben however has judged Josephine as the Christian euphemism for the harlot of Gormorrah from the get go so it's a predictable "see my virtue" play that will follow as Josephine tries to prove herself humble and worthy enough for love.

But the plot! I don't know what Kathleen Fuller is thinking but how is it possible that Ben and Wilma were supposed to be this close but she never once let him know about the granddaughter that she loved dearly but was estranged from? And if Wilma wanted Ben to marry Josephine, why didn't she let her lawyer tell Ben a good thing or two about Josephine? Instead, the lawyer merely smirks or be vague in a contrived manner so that Ben and Josephine remain at loggerheads with each other until it is close to the ending and he then conveniently tells Ben about poor Josephine's sad past. Won't it make sense to matchmake people by making these people like each other? Like I've said, I don't know what is going on inside Ms Fuller's head as she is writing this story. Trigonometric problems, perhaps?

And my God, the hero! Ben is the kind of the man who thinks that his crap doesn't stink so he has the right to say really hateful things to Josephine while judging her left and right. And when he realizes that he has been unnecessarily cruel - like accusing Josephine of being incapable of caring for a child before realizing that Josephine thinks she is barren - he doesn't apologize as much as he tells Josephine that he will pray for her. "Condenscension", Ms Fuller, is spelled that way while "Christianity" means a different thing altogether. I especially love Ben for his numerous insights into truth and wisdom in this story, such as when he wonders whether Josephine is a heartless child-hating bitch because she wants to sell the farm rather than letting him leech off something that doesn't belong to him. I also laugh when Ben wonders why Wilma will leave half the farm to her granddaughter instead of everything to him. For someone who keeps preaching about putting one's family above all, he should be the first to realize that Wilma will of course love her granddaughter more than him, right? And my favorite moment is when Ben tells Wilma to trust God because God will make everything okay. Clearly he doesn't trust God if he's not even man enough to get his freeloading ass off the farm and strike out on his own like the know-it-all he claims to be. Ben's preaching never feels sincere: whenever he accuses Josephine of being immoral or un-Christian, it's when Josephine is standing in his way of getting something that he wants. Ben comes off too much like a manipulative creep who brings up God and quotes scriptures to browbeat and guilt-trip people into doing things his way.

Christmas Legacy is such a sickening and vile story that it ruins my mood entirely when I close this book. I have to reread Diane Noble's story to remember that I love some things about this anthology. So there you have it: there is one story here that I find really, really good and one that I find excruciatingly painful to read. Maybe it's best to just read the first story when you come across this book at the local Borders?

Rating: 74

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