Harmony, Indiana, is a town of the imagination rather than a real place. Chances are, though, that once you’ve begun reading Philip Gulley’s novel Christmas in Harmony you’ll soon feel as though you’ve sat over coffee with regulars at The Coffee Cup and done a bit of last minute Christmas shopping at Kivett’s Five and Dime.
That’s not, exactly, because Gulley describes the locations so well. It’s rather that he creates characters that ring true and lets us see the places and happenings through their eyes.
The main character, Sam Gardner, is a small town Indiana boy grown to manhood and become pastor of the Quaker meeting in Harmony. In addition to handling the day to day foibles and idiosyncrasies of the members of his meeting and the challenges of being a husband and a father to two small kids, as the Christmas season unfolds Sam finds himself in the midst of plans of some in the meeting to stage a progressive live Nativity scene through the town. That’s only part of the interesting things that go on between those who want to keep things as they always have been in the meeting’s Christmas, and those who are looking for a little — or a lot — of change.
As I’ve never been intrigued with the work of Garrison Keillor, with whom Gulley is often compared, I was more than a bit skeptical when I started the book. I found it to be a good choice for holiday reading, though.
At just a bit over eighty pages, the story unfolds quickly but just at the right holiday pace. Gulley is himself a Quaker pastor and a native of Indiana, so he has the material to draw on to make Sam seem like someone you just might meet at The Coffee Cup. Not a small town person or a Quaker? No worries on that, you’ll recognize these characters and situations anywhere groups of people gather.
Through character and detail and plot, there’s a gentle sense of humor and an outright laugh or two to be had, along with, just very lightly but not at all casually, a touch of a theological idea or two, as well. Gentle humor, strong sense of place, and set of characters dealing with a Christmas pageant in small town Indiana: it all makes a good holiday story.
If Indiana captures your imagination, you may also want to look for the book called Wilderness Plots, by well known nature writer Scott Russel Sanders.
Indiana based musicians Carrie Newcomer, Krista Detor, Tim Grimm, Michael White, and Tom Roznowski collaborated to make an album of songs drawn from and inspired by Sanders’s stories of Indiana and the Ohio River Valley in the days when that was frontier country. There is a dvd of a concert of the songs, with comment and readings from Sanders, available too, Each of the musicians who worked on these projects often draw on a reference Indiana in their other projects as well.
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