At this time of year, many minds and hearts naturally turn to the
holidays --- and, in particular, the story of the birth of Christ.
Elizabeth Berg is no exception. In THE HANDMAID AND THE CARPENTER
Berg retells the birth of Jesus, but from a unique perspective. She
gives us the back story of how Mary and Joseph met, fell in love
and ultimately married.
"She was a wonder to behold, with her black curls escaped from her
braid, her cheeks flushed dusky rose, her gaze so direct and yet
mysterious." Thus was Joseph's first impression of a 13-year old
Mary, and the result was a "heart knocking my chest like a caged
animal wild to be released." He knew in that instant of meeting her
that she would be his betrothed. Shortly thereafter they are
promised to each other. They court, and in the process learn much
about one another. Joseph realizes that Mary is precocious, and
Mary learns that Joseph is quite serious.
Berg portrays Mary from book's start as feeling "some call to
greatness." That call becomes a divisive factor in the young
couple's love and marriage. As their wedding approaches, Mary
beings to question the union. Why, she asks, "could she not be
happy about the upcoming marriage to a man she deeply cared for and
admired who would be a good father and provider?" When the answer
came to her, it was in the form of an angel who gave her "great
"With God all things are possible," she is told. And soon she is
pregnant with the son of God. Joseph does not believe her tale of
the angel's visit. He shuns her, despite loving her, and only after
she cajoles him into trusting her (somewhat) do they wed.
The rest is, as they say, history.
I am a huge fan of the "back story." I loved WICKED: The Life and
Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, because
it provided me with more of the history of the characters we all
know and love; it filled in the gaps. And I enjoyed THE HANDMAID
AND THE CARPENTER for the same reason --- because it introduced me
to the human beings who were Mary and Joseph, with their foibles,
fears and desires. My only qualm with the story is that last part:
their desires. Was it a bit irreverent to write about Joseph's
physical desire for Mary? Maybe. I know it gave me slight
But the story is wonderful. Berg begins the novel with an author's
note: The Bible is poetry. Fittingly, so is THE HANDMAID AND THE
CARPENTER. Berg renders Mary and Joseph real through beautiful
language and evocative images. I imagine this is a story that will
be read and reread for years to come.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 22, 2011
The Handmaid and the Carpenter