Amid the flurry of short, light Christmas novels that appear this time of year as surely as holiday sales, don’t overlook one by a somewhat unlikely author: Orson Scott Card, Greensboro’s much-honored author of science fiction.
I’m not usually a fan of science fiction. All the males in my family have admired Card’s “Ender’s Game,” but I never got around to reading it. My closest encounter with Card came years ago when he was the speaker — an outstanding one, as I recall — at a graduation I attended at the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham.
Whether you are, like me, someone who would usually give this book a pass because you don’t read science fiction, or you are someone who would grab it up because you like Card’s other works, it’s best not to come to “A Town Divided by Christmas” with preconceptions.
Instead, just read it for what it is. You’ll be in for a treat.
Delilah Spunk, usually known as Spunky, is a post-doc in economics at a big research university. Elyon Dewey is a post-doc in genetics. Spunky is aptly nicknamed and engaging. Elyon is a whiz with math and statistics, but a complete dud when it comes to social skills. He’s also an atheist.
Both young scholars are wondering if they will ever find lasting jobs where they can put their Ph.D. educations to good and lucrative use.
The two are dispatched by a senior professor, who mostly specializes in winning grant money, to the small town of Good Shepherd in the North Carolina mountains to spend an indefinite amount of time studying genetic patterns. The idea is to determine whether there is a “homebody marker” that predisposes people to stay in their native community or at least return to it early in life, before their second child is born. Spunky’s earlier research had identified Good Shepherd as a town with an unusually low percentage of genomes from other places.
In Good Shepherd, they are surprised to find that two churches, both Episcopalian and with almost identical names, face each other across the town square. Spunky and Elyon learn that both have a Nativity pageant at exactly the same time every year. The “dueling pageants” date back nearly 90 years, to a time when there was only one Episcopal church and pageant. Then there were two, and the town’s Episcopalians, who tend to be the leading citizens, have been irrevocably divided ever since.
This being a Christmas novel, there is, of course, a chance of romance, for both Spunky and — surprisingly — Elyon. Elyon’s courtship, especially, yields quite a bit of humor.
There is also the mystery surrounding the feud that split the town, and a good dose of Christmas spirit.
Card doesn’t take himself or his Christmas story too seriously. More than once, there are humorous references to Hallmark Christmas movies, even as it’s obvious that the book would make a fine one. The story is sweet, but not syrupy, and quirky enough to be thoroughly entertaining even if (satisfyingly) predictable.