Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Book Review: Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini

Pages: 336
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: October 27, 2015
Publisher: Dutton
Source: Library
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads says, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old familiar carols play/ And wild and sweet/ The words repeat/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!In 1860, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family celebrated Christmas at Craigie House, their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The publication of Longfellow’s classic Revolutionary War poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was less than a month hence, and the country’s grave political unrest weighed heavily on his mind. Yet with his beloved wife, Fanny, and their five adored children at his side, the delights of the season prevailed.  In present-day Boston, a dedicated teacher in the Watertown public school system is stunned by somber holiday tidings. Sophia’s music program has been sacrificed to budget cuts, and she worries not only about her impending unemployment but also about the consequences to her underprivileged students. At the church where she volunteers as music director, Sophia tries to forget her cares as she leads the children’s choir in rehearsal for a Christmas Eve concert. Inspired to honor a local artist, Sophia has chosen a carol set to a poem by Longfellow, moved by the glorious words he penned one Christmas Day long ago, even as he suffered great loss.  Christmas Bells chronicles the events of 1863, when the peace and contentment of Longfellow’s family circle was suddenly, tragically broken, cutting even deeper than the privations of wartime. Through the pain of profound loss and hardship, Longfellow’s patriotism never failed, nor did the power of his language. “Christmas Bells,” the poem he wrote that holiday, lives on, spoken as verse and sung as a hymn.  Jennifer Chiaverini’s resonant and heartfelt novel for the season reminds us why we must continue to hear glad tidings, even as we are tested by strife. Reading Christmas Bells evokes the resplendent joy of a chorus of voices raised in reverent song."


It's Christmastime and St. Margaret's Catholic Church is getting ready for the holiday season.  Sophia runs the children's choir and they are diligently preparing for the Christmas Eve concert.  Meanwhile, her personal life is a bit depressing, not to mention her job as music director at a school.  It has been cut for next year due to the budget.  Needless to say things aren't looking up for her, but at least she has her children's choir and she has chosen a song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to be sung on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile, there's Charlotte and Alex, in the choir, whose father is missing while fighting in Afghanistan and then there's Father Ryan, who is trying to help his parishioners despite the fact that he has familial issues of his own.  We can't forget Sister Winifred, who always offers an ear and her astute advice.  Readers flashback to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's time to when he wrote "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."  He not only has to deal with living through the Civil War, but also a personal tragedy that will shake up his life forever and shed some light on why he wrote the famous poem now turned Christmas carol.  Jennifer Chiaverini's Christmas Bells is a moving tale about Christmas miracles and captures the hope of the holiday season.

Chiaverini's present day timeline captures a few different characters in Christmas Bells.  Somehow she made everyone's stories flesh together with a special emphasis on Sophia's.  Sophia's story is one that is very timely.  She is going to be losing her beloved job due to budget cuts and she is navigating her personal life.  She finds solace, as do others, in the children's choir at St. Margaret's.  I really loved the parishioners of St. Margaret's and following their various stories. I especially enjoyed Sister Winifred and her comments on life.  Alex and Charlotte's story line about their missing father was also especially moving.  Chiaverini ties together the modern story line with Longfellow's poem and how to this day it is still applicable.  

I knew a bit about Longfellow before reading Christmas Bells, but I really didn't know much about his personal life.  Chiaverini captured the tumultuous time period of the Civil War very well and I liked following Longfellow through the ups and downs during this sad time in American history.  Sadly, a personal tragedy stained Longfellow's life and he never really bounced back from it; however, his poem "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is so very hopeful.  I found it especially moving and timeless. I liked how Chiaverini used this poem throughout to tie the two timelines together.

"And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

If you like historical fiction and are looking for a moving Christmas tale, look no further.  I am so glad I checked Christmas Bells out, because despite the fact that it touches on tragedy, it is still extremely uplifting and highlights the spirit of the Christmas and the enduring hopefulness of the holiday season.

Are you a fan of Jennifer Chiaverini? Have you read Christmas Bells or any of Chiaverini's other historical novels? Let me know in the comments below. 



  1. I love dual timeline books, and the Civil War setting is really interesting!

    1. I really loved it and now I want to check out her other novels! I hear she has a new one coming out soon. Thanks for visiting, Angela!


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