Connie Willis,
Miracle and Other
Christmas Stories

(Bantam Spectra, 1999)

The eight short stories in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories are all reflections on and of the Christmas season, and each story shines in its own way.

In "Miracle," Lauren, an office worker, finds that the Spirit of Christmas Present (as in gift) has taken up residence in her apartment, refusing to leave until he gives Lauren her heart's desire and in general wreaking havoc in her life. (While acknowledging that not too many people have the opportunity to have a Christmas tree decorated with authentic Yanomamo ornaments in their kitchens, Lauren would rather not.) Willis neatly weaves in references to both Miracle on 34th Street (the best Christmas movie ever) and It's a Wonderful Life (not the best) into her tale which is full of the loopy cross purpose conversations she does so well.

A housewife/choir member is the narrator of "Inn." While rehearsing for the Christmas Eve service, she finds herself desperately assisting a young homeless couple who have lost their way -- desperately, because she alone among all those in the church that night recognizes just who they are. Here Willis demonstrates her capacity for creating deft character portraits with only a few phrases: Sharon, the narrator, whose efforts to help snowball with complications; the reverend, who collects goods for the homeless but doesn't want them in her church -- her use of the word "homeless" as a noun is particularly chilling; the elderly reverend who reads the same sermon every year, who turns out to have a key to the puzzle, among others.

"In Coppelius' Toyshop" is a neat and nifty tale narrated by, well, a conceited self-absorbed jerk who gets what we always wanted for him for Christmas. Enough said, except that Willis' description of a mega-toy store at Christmas is vivid and dizzying. "The Pony" is for anyone who was ever disappointed at Christmas as a child, and in "Adaptation" a clerk in the book department of a London department store gets a little unexpected help from some of the characters from Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

"Cat's Paw" is a delicious and delightful mystery in the mode of the British detective story. "Newsletter" takes on that time-honored Christmas tradition of the annual newsletter, with a wicked little twist at the end that leaves you grinning.

The final story, "Epiphany," concerns a minister who is driven by a personal epiphany regarding the Second Coming of Jesus, and the remarkable insights he has on his journey on snow-choked highways, accompanied by an atheist and a retired English teacher: together, the three are unlikely and often reluctant magi as they follow the signs and wonders. This story is a moving expression of personal faith which offers hope but does not proselytize.

An introduction on why Willis loves Christmas and the difficulties of writing Christmas stories is like getting an additional story, and she also includes lists of 12 recommended Christmas tales and 12 videos, one each for each day of Christmas.

Throughout the stories, Willis demonstrates her incredible gift for subtle symbolic imagery, for capturing the crazy cyclical nature of everyday life, for characters who are people you wish you could call up on the phone and invite over for Christmas dinner. The stories can -- and in my case, will be -- enjoyed all year 'round.

Looking for the perfect Christmas present for yourself? Miracle and Other Christmas Stories is just what you've always wanted in a short story collection.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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