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Book review: Orson Scott Card's new book is a Hallmark Christmas movie in prose, but better

"A TOWN DIVIDED BY CHRISTMAS," by Orson Scott Card, Blackstone Publishing, 108 pages (f)

I first encountered Orson Scott Card’s "A Town Divided by Christmas" last year when I received a copy as a gift from the Cards. (I am on the couple's Christmas mailing list due to my years of reviewing and writing about Card's work.) At the time, it resonated strongly; we were in arguably one of the most divided conditions this country has seen for decades. A story that had as its underlying themes balance and unity and, above all, community was welcome.

Now, a year later, the national situation is, if anything, worse, and the general publication of the story becomes even more welcome.

"A Town Divided by Christmas" is bestselling author Orson Scott Card's most recent book.
"A Town Divided by Christmas" is bestselling author Orson Scott Card's most recent book.
Blackstone Publishing

Two scientists — an economist and a geneticist — are sent to the small town of Good Shepherd in the mountains of North Carolina as part of a larger study of whether humans have a “homing gene” impelling them to return to their childhood homes. The economist, Dr. Delilah Spunk, is to interview as many citizens as possible and gather DNA samples; the geneticist, Dr. Elyon Dewey, is to transform those samples into statistical data. From the beginning, their interactions verge on the acrimonious: She is an extrovert and he, an extreme introvert.

The story’s putative focus shifts as soon as the scientists arrive in Good Shepherd and discover the town’s most distinctive feature: two Episcopal churches, with almost indistinguishable names, facing each other on opposite sides of the city square, each having performed an identical Nativity pageant for the past 87 years, on the same day, beginning precisely at the same moment. Dr. Spunk’s interviews become enmeshed with her interest in discovering the source of this conflict.

Yet even that is not the central focus of "A Town Divided by Christmas." The story is told largely through conversations, some consciously witty and clever and others seemingly wandering and off-the-cuff, but always paying service to Card’s near-surgical analysis of the complications of divisiveness and unity — the intricate interplay of us and them, smart and educated, logic and emotion, urban and rural, and more.

Lest my dissection make the tale sound too rigidly programmatic, there is one more image that becomes increasingly important: Hallmark Christmas movies. At first, the references are joking comments, but as the story unfolds, they take on more central significance and tie directly into the underlying theme of discovering— indeed, of creating — unity within divisiveness. Small-town politician and sheltered academic; reclusive, logic-driven geneticist and buxom small-town miss not long out of school — what could they possibly have in common?

"A Town Divided by Christmas" is a short tale that repays thoughtful reading. The characters are varied and engaging. It works through complex human concerns to arrive at answers that surprise and entertain. It is a compelling Hallmark Christmas movie in prose. It is a parable for our times.

Content advisory: "A Town Divided by Christmas" contains no sex, violence or strong language.