O Little Town
If you like the music of the Statler Brothers or the fiction of Debbie Macomber, you’ll be excited that with O LITTLE TOWN, Statler Brother Don Reid has made his first foray into fiction. The Grammy Award-winning songwriter sets his seasonal tale in the fictional town of Mt. Jefferson (modeled after his hometown of Staunton, Virginia).
It’s just before Christmas in 1958; Elvis is on the radio, Eisenhower is in the White House and the pastor’s 15-year-old daughter is shoplifting at Macalbee’s Five and Dime. Other Mt. Jefferson families have their own set of troubles. The arresting officer Buddy Briggs has just found out that his teenage daughter is pregnant --- and the news is going to come as a bombshell to Dr. Campbell Sterrett, whose son is the father. Dr. Sterrett, or “Camp” as he’s known, is also dealing with his own aging father-in-law, Walter, who wants to leave Lenity General Hospital in the midst of a bout with the flu to be with family for Christmas. In other scenes, the preacher’s wife Dove is tired of being married to a minister and, by vocation, being married to his congregation and their needs, and keeps the embers glowing with her love interest from the past.
There’s a lot to keep track of here between the characters and their doings, and the time change between the late 1950s and Walter’s reminiscences about Christmas of 1904. Reid takes his inspiration for one of the novel’s 1904 subplots from a true story. In the author interview from the afterword, he tells readers that a traveling circus troupe performer, Eva Clark, was murdered in his hometown around the turn of the century. Each year to the present day, an unknown person leaves flowers on her grave. In the book, Eva becomes Adrienne Knoles, an actress performing a holiday play with her husband, Nicholas. Walter tells her story through the eyes of himself as a 16-year-old stage boy at the Crown theater.
Reid incorporates many nice details of the time period, including the soap “As the World Turns” (the most watched daytime drama of 1958) and “White Christmas” sung by the Drifters. A younger generation of readers may miss some of the World War II references that are not explained (“Anzio was a card game compared to this”). The avalanche of expected problems may feel like too many and too fictionally familiar to readers (the small town with lots of secrets simmering just under the surface, the unwed pregnant daughter, the pessimistic medical diagnosis, the affair, the young rebellious minister’s daughter), but Reid keeps everything hanging together and never lets anything become more gloomy than a gentle angst. He tends to tell rather than show (“Dove and Amanda needed each other this afternoon. They were confidants who knew what they said would not go beyond the edges of the small table they were leaning into as they exchanged problems and solutions.”)
But the very familiarity of the small town troubles may endear the characters to readers: the marital difficulties, frustrations of raising children and coping with an aging parent. Reid incorporates some good themes of forgiveness and mercy as his flawed characters seek change.
All problems are neatly resolved in the end (with an epilogue tidying up any other loose threads), which is in keeping with the book’s message of holiday inspiration and cheer. Statler Brothers fans and those who like a gentle read will enjoy Reid’s foray into fiction.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 1, 2008