Katherine Paterson,
Angels & Other Strangers:
Family Christmas Stories

(Harper & Row, 1979)

According to the dedication, Katherine Paterson first told the stories in Angels & Other Strangers at the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in Maryland. Like Cynthia Rylant's collection Christmas Children, the Paterson's stories represent everyday situations, some painful, some disruptive, which at first don't seem to reflect a Christmas theme but then truly capture the essence of the season.

The title story opens the collection with "Angels & Other Strangers," in which an older black man starts to walk to Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve to be with his daughter when she has her baby. His path crosses with a Washington housewife who has to trek to Maryland to pick up her husband's impossible and irascible Aunt Patty; when she runs out of gas, she gets a lesson in identifying angels from her 4-year-old son.

In "Guests," one of the more somber stories, Pastor Nagai struggles to survive in wartime Japan, even though he is spurned and held in suspicion for his religious practices. He exists quietly, not wishing to draw attention, until one Christmas Eve, when a child enters his church and becomes a congregation of one. Recounting the Christmas story and answering her simple questions becomes a monumental source of faith for the pastor.

Elizabeth is miserable at the prospect of a new baby in the house in "Many Happy Reruns." She doesn't like Aunt Gladys, doesn't understand Sunday school, and she wonders when her parents are going to remember she exists. Elizabeth finds out that love isn't always obvious when a frightening incident sends her running from home.

"Tidings of Joy" is a bittersweet story about a woman coping with a stillbirth during the Christmas season while trying to make sure that she doesn't neglect her son. "Maggie's Gift" is definitely lighter in tone as an elderly widower takes in two foster children just for Christmas: readers of Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins will especially enjoy this one. The two moods seem to blend in "Star of Night," where a desperate father seeks his son, long since run away, and finds far more than he bargained for.

A well-to-do widow mourning her husband finds humbling common ground with a poor and ill mother in "He Came Down." In "Woodrow Kennington Works Practically a Miracle," a big brother finds a way to help his often trying little sister and in the final story, "Broken Windows," a minister learns that his vocation requires more of him than preparing the Sunday sermon.

The stories are all strongly spiritual and reflect Paterson's Christian beliefs, but they are never preachy and the emotions and situations are universal. They are thoughtful stories, and although there is pain and sorrow in many of them, these serve to bring the joy present into sharper focus.

This collection has stayed in print for 20 years, certainly a testament to the power of Paterson's lovely, lucid writing, and they would be a worthy part of any family's holiday traditions.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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