Sharyn McCrumb gives fans of her Ballad series an early Christmas present with her new novella, Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past, which is told in alternating vignettes featuring two popular characters from the series: Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Nora Bonesteel.
Summer people have bought the old Honeycutt house in Hamelin, Tennessee, where Nora spent many happy holidays as a child. The new owners have decided to spend Christmas in Tennessee this year and wait till the new year to return to their Florida home. But something has stirred up an angry spirit, one that has taken its fury out on the couple’s Christmas tree.
Nora, who has the ‘sight,’ is called to the house to determine if it’s haunted. She is stunned by what she sees: “She had not been prepared for a six-foot shiny aluminum Christmas tree that was so . . . so pink. Shrimp-colored, Shirley had called it. The metallic tree probably went well with the couple’s tropical ornaments, now smashed by some intruder and thrown away.” Nora discovers that ghosts can be as nostalgic as people when it comes to Christmas.
The second section of the novella opens on Christmas Eve, as Spencer and his deputy, Joe LeDonne, find themselves up in the mountains to arrest a man for a minor traffic offense. After identifying the malefactor, an elderly man who lives with his equally ancient wife, they end up in a curious battle of wits that might prevent them from getting home for Christmas Day.
As befitting a Christmas memory, nostalgia accompanies these stories. Nora’s recollections of childhood Christmases sound like something out of a Dickens novel: “I remember Judge Honeycutt always used to have a big old Scotch pine set up in the front hall. That tree was about as big around as it was tall, so the top of it went way up into the stairwell. You’d have to go upstairs to see the angel on top of it. To decorate the tree, the Honeycutts would invite all the young people in the community and a few of the Honeycutt boys’ friends from school to a big Christmas party. We’d sit in the parlor talking to one another, while the local fiddlers played the old songs from the mountains, and as we talked we made the decorations for the tree: paper chains, strings of popcorn, and little dolls out of cloth and clothes pins. We used yarn for the hair.” Maybe it’s no surprise that a ghost would find the new owners’ pink Christmas tree offensive.
McCrumb’s affection for Appalachia and its people is evident on every page, although she doesn’t hide from the hardships of poverty and isolation that her characters face. When Arrowood and LeDonne try to arrest Shull, he agrees to go with them but says, “The plain truth of it is that what troubles me about all this is Norma. We live alone here on the farm, just the two of us, and we’ve been man and wife purt near fifty years by now. I keep things going about the place as best I can, but I’m not as spry as I used to be, and Norma has the arthritis awful bad. It’s worse in the winter, when the cold just seems to settle in your bones.” But Shull also displays the cunning and ingenuity that have made the people of Appalachia so hardy (and this part of the book so fun to read).
Fans of the Ballad series will welcome the return of these characters, although many will find that return too short-lived. Next year we’ll add a full Ballad novel to our Christmas list.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.