Melody Carlson has penned another story that is sure to warm readers’ hearts this holiday season. Lena Markham served eight years in prison because her own minister ex-husband set her up for embezzlement. Her recent release has her feeling afraid, uncertain, and suspicious of everyone and everything. Only craving the quiet, Lena is disappointed when an old woman named Moira Phillips takes a seat next to her on the bus that’s heading to New Haven for her fresh start. Although Lena tries her best to stay aloof, Moira gently draws her out; after sharing a meal with Moira en route to New Haven, Lena’s resistance thaws in response to Moira’s kindness.
But the warm fuzzies don’t last long. Upon arrival at their destination, Moira’s lawyer son, Sam, picks up Moira and is understandably skeptical about this strange young woman accompanying his widowed mother, and he lets it show. Immediately, the walls of defense go up, and Lena accepts her lot without a fight. No one, not even her own parents, ever believed in her. Nor did they think she was innocent in the scandal that drove them to their early deaths. Lena, accustomed to being misunderstood, decides that it’s better to be on her own and not allow people to get close.
Once again, Lena is proven wrong as six-year-old Jemima steals her heart upon introduction at the seedy boardinghouse where she has been placed. Jemima’s unemployed single mom, Sally, is obviously in need of a mother’s helper, and Lena offers to help babysit the little girl. Sally takes Lena up on her offer, and soon Jemima and Lena are fast friends…both giving something of immeasurable value to the other.
But Lena cannot afford to be without a real income of her own, so the real adventure starts when she dons the secondhand red and white coat and is offered a position at Harrington’s department store as the new Mrs. Santa. Shocked and pleasantly surprised, Lena takes the job and discovers she’s a natural with the children. Caring and non-judgmental, she loves her job and the opportunity to truly minister to the youngsters who come to her with more than Christmas gift lists.
Yet again, though, the past won’t rest when a former parishioner recognizes Lena and writes a letter of complaint to the store’s owner, who immediately lets her go. When the media gets holds of the story of Mrs. Santa being fired for embezzlement, Lena realizes she must bravely set the record straight and stop running from false accusations. In slow steps, she first turns back to God and pleads for His help and strength. Then, she faces the small town inhabitants of New Haven, finding support in formerly unlikely people. In a short stretch of time, Lena travels full circle from incarceration to freedom (both inside and out).
Fans of Melody Carlson will find this simple, heartwarming story a gentle respite from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
Reviewed by Michele Howe on November 13, 2011