A young boy’s determination to give a bitter recluse a gift transforms Christmas for an Appalachian city in Schell’s (Jack and Jillian, 2017, etc.) novel.
Gabriel Taylor insists that he’s 6-and-a-half, not 6, and soon to be a man. In Cumberland, Maryland, he lives across the street from Sarabelle Lindsay, a retired nurse who has become angry at the world since the loss of her husband, Irwin. She’s especially irritated by her neighbors Galen and Mabel Duckworth, who garishly decorate their house for Christmas each year and annoy Sarabelle with their cheer. Meanwhile, Sarabelle’s indifference irks Gabriel’s mother, Janine. But Gabriel is preoccupied with why Santa brings only a small present for his best friend, Becky, who wears hand-me-downs and whose family only occasionally turns on their Christmas-tree lights. There’s general confusion at Sarabelle’s attitude in this close-knit community but also gossip, drama, and even scandal. When Gabriel overhears that his father, Ben, has been fired from his job, he becomes convinced that his parents must pay Santa to visit every year; it would also explain why Becky gets so little and Sarabelle gets nothing. Gabriel resolves to negotiate with Santa this year, and he decides that Becky will receive his teddy bear and Sarabelle his stuffed turtle. This sets off an unexpected chain of events that includes wrongful termination, fraud, vandalism, and even attempted suicide before the boy’s plan renews an entire town with faith and hope. Schell was born in the real-life Cumberland, and he extensively draws upon his knowledge of the area in this novel. His impressionistic descriptions of life in the town are moving and downright lovely. The story offers a character-driven plot that creatively pulls together the travails of various families toward a single, cataclysmic tragedy. However, his dialogue is pedantic and precious at times (“Mr. Benjamin Owen Taylor, we’ll march, our Pitney Pistols drawn, straight to the bottom line of this fraud”), and the Agatha Christie–like solution to Ben’s firing is predictable. Otherwise, however, this is a charming, humorous tale about the continued importance of Christmas.
A sometimes-maudlin but imaginative holiday story.