Friday, November 27, 2015

Homecoming: A Shiloh Christmas by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Rachel turns to Ma and says, "I don't want to go home!" And her voice trembles. "It's because of Daddy," Ruthie puts in, watching her sister.

The preacher stands at the doorway. Rachel won't even look at her father, just stares straight ahead. Ma has to loosen Ruthie's fingers from her shirt and the girl takes her dad's hand, sniveling.

"That's enough," Preacher says to Ruthie. Preacher turns to leave, but he don't know what all his girls have told us, and he's got something to say.

"Mr. Preston, I go by the Bible: 'Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.'"

Dad walks down the steps beside him. "Yes, I know the verse, and the one after: "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.'" Dad says real gentle, "Pastor, you've got two daughters who want to love their father. Don't make it so hard for 'em."

As the driest West Virginia summer ever slowly turns to autumn, a kitchen fire becomes a wildfire that burns woods and houses alike on the other side of the road in front of Marty Preston's house. Marty braves the fire to release Judd's two dogs, but the fire takes Judd's trailer and many other houses before it is out. And Preacher Dawes' fire and brimstone preaching, long on blasphemy and sin, and short on love and forgiveness, begins to divide the community into two hot factions.

Reverend Dawes blames the drought and the fire on their sins, and his supporters whisper that Judd Dawes set the fire, despite all the work Judd has done to turn himself around since Marty caught him beating his dogs, including the beagle puppy Shiloh that Marty rescued. The rest of the church members complain about the pastor's emphasis on sin and retribution and spend some Sundays working to help Judd and the other neighbors rebuild their houses. The Prestons offer their tent and their backyard for Judd to sleep in while he saves up for a new place.

Then, going to Rachel Dawes' house to work on a school assignment, Marty discovers her locked in an unheated shed behind the house, and his little sister Dara reports that seven-year-old Ruthie Dawes confided that her father locks her in a chair with wrist clamps for punishment. Marty tells his parents, but since the pastor doesn't seem to use actual physical punishment, they don't know what to do.

Then one of Judd's dogs is found hit by a car, and Shiloh disappears. After twenty-four hours, Marty is miserable with worry for his dog. And then something surprising happens.

"Marty," Dad keeps saying, "Get up!" Look out there." It's barely light. "Look over at Judd's tent." he says. I stare hard.

Right outside the zipped-up door flap is a white dog, head on its paws. and standing off to the other side... is Shiloh.

"Shiloh brought Judd's dog back, didn't he?" I say. "Looks that way," said Dad, with a huge smile.

Then the terrier is in Judd's arms, licking his face.

Shiloh seems to have forgiven Judd for his cruelty, and as the neighbors accept Judd's pitching in to help rebuild each other's houses as Christmas approaches, their joint efforts seem to bring about a kinder mood in the community. Even Pastor Dawes' sermons turn to more redemptive messages, and on Christmas Day he even takes his daughters on a couple of downhill runs on Marty's new sled.

Notable author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor brings her Newbery-winning Shiloh series to a warm holiday conclusion in A Shiloh Christmas (The Shiloh Quartet) (Athenium Books, 2015). Naylor makes skillful use of her third person narrative, letting Marty tell the story through his own eyes. Twelve-year-old Marty is a kid who, in his own words, has "still got a lot of whys," and Naylor takes on those big questions about God and human behavior seriously in a story that, like its predecessors, honestly faces questions of what is right and wrong, good and evil, in life without lapsing into easy platitudes.

Even though no middle reader should miss reading the other Shiloh books, this story stands alone well, one that asks the hard questions while affirming a message of goodwill to all. "This artfully wrought story of restoration manages to be both hopeful as well as authentic," says Kirkus in one of many starred reviews. A fine book for a December class read-aloud or for dog-lovers anytime, and a meaningful gift book for kids, who, like Marty Preston, "have a lot of whys."

The other books in this series are Shiloh, Shiloh Season, and Saving Shiloh, available separately or as a boxed set, The Shiloh Collection, perfect for reading on those long midwinter nights following Christmas.

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