Winnie Griggs’s A Family For Christmas encompasses the strengths and weaknesses of the inspirational and category romance. As such, there was much that Miss Bates liked and a modicum she didn’t: this is, she admits, a trite statement. However, every time she reads an inspirational category romance, she struggles to articulate how it can occasionally ring false in the telling and, at the same time, how attractive and positive its ethos can be. On the one hand, there is a preciousness to the world of the inspirational that requires a suspension of belief akin to paranormal romance! On the other hand, there is an ethos of love and acceptance that, if it’s not preachy and is coupled with honesty about physical attraction and a loosening of puritanical mores, can be quite appealing.
Blend the pros and cons of the inspirational with that of the category romance and the combination in Griggs’s novel is typical: there is succinctness and tightness to the writing and a well-thought-out plot, familiar and comforting, with the unfortunate propensity to leave interesting elements under-developped and present characters with strange and sudden turnabouts (pun intended) in behaviour. Griggs’s A Family For Christmas, guilty as charged. And yet … and yet … Miss Bates loves Christmas-set romances and enjoyed this one.
A Family For Christmas opens with flat prose and an interesting premise; it closes with vastly improved prose and a lovely HEA. In places along the way, it wobbles.
At the Turnabout, Texas, train station, in 1895, the conductor ejects Leo, a young stowaway. Unwilling to tolerate an abandoned child, Eve Hendricks, on her way to take a position as a milliner’s assistant, disembarks to ensure his well-being. On the train ride, a handsome man, Chance Dawson, had watched and admired her. She and Leo are helpless and stranded; Chance, who lives in Turnabout, offers them shelter in his shop/home and ensures that the proprieties are kept by asking his elderly friend, Dotty Epps, to move in and act as chaperone.
We learn that Eve was not looking forward to her new position, but had been “banished,” her words, to fulfill an obligation to her puritanical, strict grandmother. But this is no ordinary town, Griggs establishes early; as Chance says to Eve, “I’ve seen evidence that Turnabout lives up to its name. It’s a good place for starting over and turning your life around.” Therein lies a lovely theme of transformation, brought about by love and acceptance: for Chance, who’s already half-way there at Turnabout’s influence, and what will come to be a more positive, loving way of being for Eve and the orphan, Leo.
These three characters are poised on the brink of a new way of life, more open, loving, and positive; however, and this is the true “inspirational” message, they need each other to fulfill the promise of themselves. An ethos of “no man is an island” is evident, only in two and three and many can one become fully oneself. The journey there, however, for Eve, Chance, and Leo is fraught with secret shames.
While Turnabout’s depiction is “precious”; it is also so attractive in it basic decency, its inhabitants, neighbourly, giving, open, and cheerful. There’s a lot to be said for cheerfulness and Miss Bates believes it an under-rated and under-used sentiment in romance!
Leo, the orphan, has purportedly stolen a watch … but the watch was his father’s and had been taken in “payment,” when a farmer took him in after his father’s death and used him for free labour. With the love and care Chance and Eve lavish on him, it’s lovely to see him flourish. Chance, in turn, is in Turnabout having left behind the expectations of his wealthy Philadelphia family, especially his rigid, demanding father. We learn that Chance’s shameful “sin” is that he cannot read nor fulfill his father’s dream of making him a high-powered lawyer for the family firm. Chance is so likeable and Miss Bates was heart-broken for him: he watches Eve choose a book from Turnabout’s lending library, “that familiar kick of jealousy tinged with shame twisted his gut and he turned away.”
On the other hand, he’s a genius at tinkering with engines, is working at a mechanical washing machine, and whittles beautifully-rendered wooden toys. He’s a “hands-on” kind of guy … and when he gets his hands on Eve, for a dance and kiss and chivalrous carrying of the damsel-with-the-hurt-knee, there’s a zippy zing to their physical attraction. Mild as it is by most romance standards, it’s potent and confusing and interesting … it’s just one shade of wonderful.
Eve’s story is more complicated: the product of a single, difficult, rigid, puritanical grandmother, she has turned her grandmother’s harsh judgements on herself, cutting herself off from others, guilt-ridden when she takes any joy from life and turning to duty and work as a means of atoning for her illegitimate birth. Chance is rightly outraged on her behalf when she confesses, “The only certainty is that neither of them [her parents] wanted me” and “I was named Eve after the world’s first sinner” and “Even my own mother didn’t want me.” How Chance, despite his own pain, uncertainty, and doubts about his self-worth, brings Eve into accepting love and embracing joy is one of the pleasures of this novel. And he is not alone, the citizens of Turnabout play their part too in taking in the “strangers and sojourners.” But it is in Chance’s easy flirtation and fun that Eve glimpses another way of being. When Chance teaches her to dance, it is eminently romantic and lovely, “connecting her to him, making her feel safe” for the first time in her life. And Chance is a charmer, but he’s also loving, protectively encouraging, caring, and chivalrous.
While Miss Bates has described our hero and heroine as stable characters, one of the problems she had with Griggs’s overall competent romance was the occasional mercurial nature of their characterization. It stands as more understandable vis-à-vis Eve who struggles between the ethos of her cold, puritanical, and shame-filled upbringing and the joyful, welcoming, encouraging world of Turnabout and Chance Dawson’s stalwart, protective, and delicious embrace. The girl is dour, but she has reason to be. Though Miss Bates grew to love Chance, he exhibits a cavalier and immature manner, especially in the first half of the novel, that deviates too much from the loving, chivalrous man he becomes in the last third.
Another most interesting aspect to A Family For Christmas, at least for Miss Bates, is a combination of the faith element and what she’ll call the “entrepreneurial” spirit. Griggs creates, not just characters who live their faith, but a town who does. The characters take church-going, saying grace at table, and prayer as natural to their everyday lives. Eve, humble and inward-looking, often movingly appeals to the Almighty for aid.
But what struck Miss Bates is the keen advocacy of the entrepreneurial ethos. Everyone works so hard and joyfully. Eve learns from watching Chance in his workshop and other townsfolk as they go about their calling in life. His faith and encouragement and his and the townspeople’s example inspire her to pursue her special gift: candy-making. Chance especially questions her fulfillment of the milliner’s trade when it isn’t what she really wants to do. He and the town challenge, help, and support her. She slowly and joyfully makes a success of her business. But the work ethic as it’s portrayed here is not a single-minded pursuit of wealth and status: it is a calling that is balanced with fun and play, worship and fellowship.
In keeping with the faith base of the romance, Griggs nicely frames the love story of Chance and Eve with the twin holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. As Chance says to Eve, “Hope is what Christmas is all about.” The fulfillment of hopes and dreams is what Chance and Eve find in each other, but not before darkness comes in the form of some painful trials: the arrival of Chance’s father and the revelation of their secret shames. There are hurtful, aching moments … possibilities of loss and betrayal, especially on the part of our not-always-easy-to-like heroine. But the spirit of love and care that took her off that train and put her by Leo’s side comes through to save the day. Her avowal of love to Chance is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of valuing the other that opens the novel, “I love you just the way you are, just the way God made you.”
Miss Bates had some reservations regarding Griggs’s A Family For Christmas, but there is no doubt that herein is “a mind lively and at ease” Emma.
A Family For Christmas is published by Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical line and available today and thereafter in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Miss Bates loves Christmas-set romances, but the sight of tinsel, holly, and mistletoe sends some readers running! Her favourite Christmas-set romance is One Christmas Knight by Kathleen Creighton, with its lovely working-class hero and killer snowstorm. What of you, dear reader, are you a fan, or do you call on your inner Scrooge at the plethora of Christmas-set romances that appear annually?