A Town Divided by Christmas: A humorous mix of science and romance

A Town Divided by Christmas by Orson Scott CardA Town Divided by Christmas by Orson Scott Card

A Town Divided by Christmas by Orson Scott Card fantasy book reviewsThe scientific method collides with southern small town culture and a local mystery in Orson Scott Card’s charming and insightful novella A Town Divided by Christmas (2018). Two post-doc academics ― Dr. Delilah (Spunky) Spunk, an economist, and Dr. Elyon Dewey, a geneticist ― are sent to Good Shepherd, North Carolina to do a genetic and sociological study. The hope is that by studying a relatively genetically isolated population, they can prove or disprove the theory that certain people carry a “homebody marker”: a genetic tendency to remain in their native community or return to it. Spunky, the more personable of the two, is charged with interviewing the townspeople and convincing them to give genetic samples; Elyon (“that most tragic of personality types: The relentless extrovert with zero social skills”) is to do the genome analysis of the samples.

When Spunky and Elyon arrive in Good Shepherd, one of the first things they notice is two big churches facing each other across the town square, with nearly identical names: First Episcopal Church of the Nativity and First Episcopal Nativity Church. The local alderman, Eggie Loft, explains to Spunky that there’s a fifty-year division between the Episcopalians, so deep that none will cross from one church to the other. Each church puts on the Nativity pageant at exactly the same time, with identical scripts. If anyone still alive knows the underlying reason for the religious duel, they’re not saying, but apparently it had something to do with which baby was chosen to play the Baby Jesus in the Nativity pageant eighty-seven years ago.

Elyon’s abrasiveness is so off-putting to Spunky that she avoids his company as much as possible, choosing to spend time with the townspeople instead ― especially Eggie Loft. Eggie is intelligent and has a great sense of humor, but his deep ties to Good Shepherd make it difficult for Spunky to see any future in a relationship with him. Meanwhile, Elyon has hired a local girl, Jozette, to cook and clean for him. Despite her lack of any college education or understanding of any part of Elyon’s work, the two grow closer … though Spunky wonders if it’s mostly because Jozette wear low-cut tops and bends over in front of Elyon every time she has a chance.

The plot of A Town Divided by Christmas is fairly slight and meanders in a way that distinctly reminded me of laid-back, small-town vibes. The witty banter and humorous commentary make the leisurely journey a delight, though.

“I just remembered,” said Eggie, “that the food here isn’t very good.”

 

“It’s as good as whatever Elyon is having for dinner in his apartment, with less cleavage.”

A Town Divided by Christmas also has something deeper to say about the many things that can divide people: science vs. religion, urban vs. rural, education vs. common sense, and so on. The religious Christmas pageant duel is symbolic of the divisions between people. But Card is also exploring the ways that people can bridge the divide. Even the dueling Christmas pageants, it turns out, have a certain harmony.

A Town Divided by Christmas (originally passed out by the Cards in 2017 as a Christmas gift) has a timely message for our world, where so much focus is given to the things that divide us. It’s not science fiction or fantasy, but it is an entertaining and humorous mix of scientific methods and romance and interpersonal relationships generally.

Published in November 2018. It began with a quarrel over which newborn should be the baby Jesus in the town’s Christmas pageant. Decades later, two scientists arrive to study small-town genetic patterns, only to run up against the invisible walls that split the leading citizens into two congregations that can only be joined by love and forgiveness. And maybe a little deception, because there might be some things that people just don’t need to know.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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