Sometimes delightful gifts come in small packages. Sometimes that delight is found in a short novel that one can read in one or two evenings, from first-page storm to last-page resolution.
For Advent inspiration or a Christmas gift, Vinita Hampton Wright's new seasonal novella fills the bill. After the opening Colorado blizzard that maroons "postcollege, prejob" Jana, the book's wintry scene has less to do with cold weather --- most of the December action taking place in balmy Atlanta --- than with the chill in Jana's heart.
Jana's faithless life is fragmented: her parents divorced, her boyfriend out of the picture. "She had just survived Thanksgiving with Dad and his wife," whom he had met "at some conference about reclaiming life's positive energy." Until Jana slid off the road and into a ditch, "she had been gratefully alone and headed across the country, toward Christmas" in Georgia with her mother, currently undergoing distressing cancer treatments in the care of Jana's aunt.
Jana "wasn't especially looking forward to Christmas either." But "when both parents had left you, you'd broken up with your boyfriend, and you had no job or money, well of course the thing to do was go have a Happy Thanksgiving and then top that off with a Merry Christmas." Such were the expectations she placed on herself and anticipated from others, notably her aunt Cheryl, who, in Jana's view had two strikes against her: Cheryl insisted on calling Jana by her full name, Mary Georgianna; Cheryl was also "very tight with 'the Lord.'" Jana mentally summarized her cross-country trip: "I'm making a pilgrimage from New Age freaks to Holy Rollers." Even her unchurched mother was talking about God since she'd taken sick.
In the second of the novella's three parts ("The Journey, "The Encounter," and "The Gift") Jana reluctantly attends Cheryl's "rather well-to-do" Southern Baptist church, where "people were way too friendly, considering they hardly knew her." But there she meets a middle-aged woman named Sandra, whom Jana recognizes as someone "she might actually like to talk to."
A spiritual director trained to listen well, Sandra befriends Jana and gently challenges her to read Luke's account of the Christmas story, imagine herself as a character and journal her experience. "Enter the story and walk beside Mary, and talk to her. Ask her any questions you like...God meets you in that story and tells you what you need to understand."
In this fashion Jana --- whose real name, you remember, is Mary --- encounters Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Christchild. Over several days she reads, up through the account of Simeon and Anna, who intuitively know the baby's identity. Jana journals conversations with young Mary, musings about old Anna and herself: "Would I ever recognize the Jesus child? Would I know what to look for? Would I care enough to notice?"
In the company of Luke's characters, Jana's maternal family and their Southern Baptist friends, Jana receives a gift that sets her on a new journey. As Jana hears at Christmas dinner, "This is what faith gives us, celebrations of what has already come true and celebrations of what will someday be true."
Wright dedicates her book to "every young woman who needs company on the journey." THE WINTER SEEKING is very appropriate for young women who are struggling to find their place in and way through life. But it is more than a young adult novel; it is a refreshing, well-written story that shines hope, like warm light, into any winter season.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on October 21, 2003