(This book review appears in The New York Journal of Books.)
In It’s a Wonderful Christmas: Classics Reimagined, each of the five critically acclaimed authors crafts a story inspired by their favorite holiday movie. Combined, the novella collection makes for delightful reading, which, author Julie Cantrell suggests, is the spirit of this collection’s intention. In the author’s note for her novella, Cantrell writes, “When the pandemic put a damper on the 2020 holidays, we decided it was the perfect time to pool our efforts into a positive, uplifting project that would bring a little jingle jangle joy to our readers.” And they do. Each unique novella shines as a complete, satisfactory experience.
Julie Cantrell chose National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and centered her novella, A Fun, Old-Fashioned Family Christmas, on a dysfunctional Baton Rouge family adjusting to their new normal, now that their college professor father has abandoned the family for his 19-year-old student. In their disillusionment, teenage siblings, Ellie, and Jake, don a brave front and join their mother on the family’s annual trip to Houston—sans father—to celebrate the holiday season with their maternal grandparents, who hide their dampened spirits over the unexplained and unhealed estrangement of their only son.
Feeling nostalgic, Ellie flips through family photograph albums of happy Christmases past and, wanting to please her grandparents, issues invitations to relatives far afield, setting the stage for the chaotic reunion of the emotionally baggage-carrying clan. Ellie, hip to social media’s influence, documents the family dynamic with posts on TiKTok, which quickly go viral and grab the attention of a national television show intent on, ironically enough, producing a segment on a family enjoying a traditional Christmas. It’s a tangle of false starts and best intentions gone awry, and Cantrell lures the reader with heartwarming insight into the power of family.
The second novella is titled, Lovely Life, by Janyre Tromp, who tips her hat in her author’s notes to the men and women of the armed forces and shares that her novella’s inspiration came from the classic movie, White Christmas, whose script Tromp distills to its core. Tromp tells the reader her novella is about, “Someone helping a veteran save their business with a big musical production.”
With the novella’s setting in the lake area of Frankfort, Michigan, Lovely Life concerns the multi-generational family seat of Vietnam War veteran Robby Willingham, once a mess sergeant returned worse for wear to run the restaurant/music venue that’s part and parcel of his family’s famed castle hotel. The venue is in the kind of financial peril that’s burdened by a ticking clock, while Robby is pressured with keeping the business’s doors open. When his one-time fiancé, Beatriz Harris, returns to help, now that she’s the world-famous singer in the band Robby helped form pre-war, Robby is confronted with an unreconciled past that includes a lover’s triangle made of Beatriz, himself, and his ex-best friend. A spin on the ties that bind and the fears that hold us back, Lovely Life achieves a harmonious resolution while laying bare themes of sacrifice, healing rifts, and working together for the common good in the name of friendship.
Author Lynne Gentry’s novella, Miracle on Main Street, takes its inspiration from the movie, Miracle on 34th Street. Set in the town of Mt. Hope, the West Texas diner Ruthie Crouch started 40 years prior is failing, and all town businesses are suffering, which inspires the locals to stage a Christmas parade to stimulate tourism. The camaraderie of the townsfolk drives the story, and Tromp introduces a wonderful cast of characters who come to Ruthie’s aid when her estranged husband, Earl Dean, from 40 years back, reappears dressed in rags, and Ruthie’s position as sole proprietor of the diner is threatened, which reveals her long held resentment from Earl Dean’s abandonment.
Though Ruthie and Earl Dean’s daughter is now dead, their grandson, Angus, is devoted to Ruthie and her business, and a predicament arises when Angus longs to let the seemingly vagrant Earl Dean into his life. When Mt. Hope’s citizens embrace Earl, Ruthie remains wary, but her guarded heart opens when she hears the explanation for Earl Dean’s decades long absence. Themes of community, friendship, and perseverance are at the heart of this homespun story, as is the willingness to forgive for the betterment of all.
Author Kelli Stuart tells us in her author’s note that the “Sugar Plum Fairy” in The Nutcracker was a figment of Tchaikovsky’s imagination, and nobody knows where she and the mysterious partner with whom she dances the pas de deux came from. In her novella, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Stuart sets out to answer the riddle by creating a fully imagined fantasy world and populating the kingdom with astounding characters, including a despairing young queen named Alyona; a returned paramour turned knight in shining armor named Max; Chak-Chak, his dog; and an evil, arch nemesis named the Mouse King.
It is December 24, and in an effort toward breaking the Mouse King’s curse set upon The Land of Sweets, the dispirited Alyona’s mettle is tested as she endeavors to save her kingdom. In days of yore, the kingdom knew prosperity, and tradition had it that Alyona appeared yearly before the masses to hand out sweets, the crowning jewel being one plucked from the kingdom’s sugar plum tree, which gave Alyona the moniker, the Sugar Plum Fairy.
When childhood sweetheart, Max Pavlov, appears at Alyona’s door with information about how to break the kingdom’s curse, forces are set in motion on the way to restoring order, including an army, the location of a girl named Marie, the acquisition of a particular nut, and battle with a seven-headed beast. Persevering through hard times, working together, and keeping the faith are themes in this spellbinding story, the least of which is the triumphant insight that it is love that keeps us together.
A Christmas romance rounds out, It’s a Wonderful Christmas: Classics Reimagined, and author Allison Pittman titles her novella, 500 Miles to Christmas, inspired by the 1940s movie, Remember the Night. The novella opens with a car chase as young Leah Anders, an aspiring fashion designer, is pulled over for speeding on a Texas highway by deputy Rick Murray. The attraction is instant, and Rick Murray sees no need for the polite, soft-spoken girl to be jailed, so he takes Leah to his mother’s ranch where she is seen to as a guest, while her bail is arranged.
But Leah’s relationship with her famous, novelist mother is a complicated one, and it was, after all, her mother’s BMW in which Leah took to the road in anger and since her mother seeks to teach Leah a lesson about discipline and self-sufficiency, the wait for bail is a long one with plenty of opportunity for Leah to work her way into the heart of Rick Murray. Freedom from dependency, perception shifts, resiliency, talent, and drive are the themes in this charming Christmas romance, which is set three days before Christmas and ends with great promise for the future.
It’s a Wonderful Christmas: Classics Reimagined achieves what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable assembly of novellas sure to lift the holiday spirit of every reader.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.