Robert Layton is a wealthy attorney who seems to have everything and yet nothing at all. Somewhere along the way, Robert has lost sight of what is truly important in life and has become a workaholic who never spends time with his family. His long-suffering wife has decided that she's had enough, and is planning to file for a divorce after the holidays. Robert isn't quite sure that he is ready for his marriage to end, but neither does he seem to understand what he needs to do to save it.
Across town, the Andrews family live very simply on mechanic, Jack's modest salary, but they have a whole lot of love in their household. Everything changes for them though, when Jack's wife, Maggie is diagnosed with cancer and only given a short time to live. As the holidays approach, Maggie's condition begins to deteriorate rapidly, leaving little question that this will be her last Christmas with her beloved husband and her children, Nathan and Rachel. When everyone in Nathan's class at school share their fondest holiday memories, Nathan is particularly moved by his teacher's story of a special pair of shoes she received as a little girl.
On Christmas Eve, Robert half-heartedly goes shopping for his family, and chances to meet a little boy who is desperately trying to purchase a fancy pair of shoes for his mom, so she will look pretty when she meets Jesus. The boy doesn't have enough money, and when he turns pleading eyes on Robert, it awakens something within him that makes him realize everything he's been missing and changes his life in a profound and lasting way.
I had recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn't read a true tear-jerker yet this year. I have been know to get a bit misty-eyed at certain scenes, but it is a rare book that makes me actually shed tears. The Christmas Shoes did exactly that and more. It made me cry buckets both while reading it and afterwards while merely thinking about it, and again while trying to write this review. There is a profound and beautiful message packed into this simple short story. It may have been difficult to read at times, evoking many deep and heartfelt emotions, but it was worth every moment. I have been left thinking about it long after turning the last page, which is what I hope for every time I pick up a book to read.
My favorite movie at Christmastime is It's a Wonderful Life, and The Christmas Shoes reminded me of it in some ways. Both stories are about the serendipitous nature of life and how each of our lives are important, intertwined with the lives of others, and can affect anyone with whom we come in contact in unexpected ways. It may not seem like some small thing we've done even mattered, but it's possible that it was the thing that utterly changed another person's life, all by us merely being in the right place at the right time. The meeting between Robert and Nathan in The Christmas Shoes was very brief, but during that short encounter, Nathan gave Robert a much-needed wake-up call, while Robert opened his heart enough to fulfill Nathan's Christmas wish for his dying mother. It all makes me wonder in what mysterious and unknown ways I might have affected the life of someone with whom I've come in contact, over the forty years of my own life.
I believe that The Christmas Shoes is the first book I've read that alternates between first and third person perspective. Robert's scenes are written in his first-person voice, while the rest of the book is written from the third-person point of view of various other characters. I didn't really have any difficulty following it, but it did take a little getting used to. Overall, I think this style worked well. Robert was the character whose life seemed to be the most affected, so it made sense to have his part be in first person. No matter what voice they were speaking in, all the characters were vividly brought to life in a touching and realistic way.
In the beginning, Robert is difficult to like. He is a rather selfish workaholic attorney who has become very materialistic and cynical (think shades of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol). His life is about to fall apart with his wife asking for a divorce after Christmas, but he still can't seem to figure out what he truly wants in life or how to make it happen. He also isn't very nice to some of the other characters in the story, and never really spends any time with his family. Once I came to the realization that Robert is a man who has lost his way and doesn't comprehend what is truly important in life, I was able to feel more sympathetic toward him, but real change doesn't come for him until he meets up with an eight-year-old little boy while doing last minute Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.
While Robert's lifestyle is one of wealth bereft of human connections, Nathan's family has lived very simply, barely making ends meet on his father's salary as a mechanic, yet they have a home that is brimming full of love. His mother, Maggie made it that way, but now she is dying of cancer. I thoroughly admired Maggie's strength and dignity in the face of death. She didn't complain or ask "Why me?". She chose to live her final days giving as much as she was physically able to her family. Maggie and Jack had a tragic romance to be sure, but one that was filled with more love in the seemingly short time they had together than some couples experience in a lifetime. That love was obviously passed on to their children, especially Nathan who was thoughtful enough to want to give his mother a very special present for her last Christmas with them and in doing so opened the eyes of a man who was lost to help him rediscover his way in life.
Death can be a very difficult topic for some people, and even I have to admit to being a former death phobic. I have slowly been challenged in my thinking on the subject, first by the death of both my parents more than ten years ago, and more recently by the death of two beloved pets who, through their final moments, taught me some very important lessons. It may seem strange to some, but I found a certain peace and beauty in these creature's passings and know that I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else but helping them to make that transition. I mention these things, because I absolutely loved the way Donna VanLiere handles death in The Christmas Shoes. She treats it not as something to be feared, but as something that can be very beautiful, a mere step into the afterlife. I also greatly admired the way that Maggie and Jack handled the subject of her impending death with Nathan. It is my fervent opinion that in cases like this, kids should be treated intelligently and allowed to make their own decisions, which can lead to a better sense of peace and closure for them.
Even though The Christmas Shoes was printed by a mainstream publisher, I have seen the book categorized as Christian fiction, and I suppose in some ways it is. The author is a Christian, and the characters talk about God, heaven, and how Christmas is the celebration of the Christ child's birth. Still, I think that the messages about love, life, death and how the choices we make can affect others, are universal ones that can be appreciated by anyone. In my opinion, the story is never preachy, nor does it seek to advance any sort of religious agenda. It merely tells an inspiring tale, leaving it up to the individual reader to discern the deeper meaning contained within its pages, which to me is the best kind of story, Christian or otherwise. In fact, I lost count of all the characters who were behaving in, what to my way of thinking, was a truly "Christ-like" manner which was very impressive to me. Although several main characters were shining beacons of light too, I was particularly taken by the kindness of some of the secondary characters like Nathan's teacher, Mrs. Patterson, the hospice nurse, Sylvia, and the anonymous lady who merely washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen the day after Maggie's death. They became a humble and sometimes silent expression of the real spirit of Christmas by showing God's love in service to those in need.
The Christmas Shoes is the first book in the Christmas Hope series. There are currently five books in the series, and the next one, The Christmas Blessing, follows Nathan as a young man dealing with new challenges in his grown-up life. I may not get a chance to read The Christmas Blessing this holiday season, but I will definitely be reading it at some point in the future. For anyone who isn't aware, The Christmas Shoes is based on the song of the same name recorded by the group NewSong. I've heard it on the radio at Christmastime a few times, and it always makes me cry just like the book did. There was also a made-for-TV movie adapted from the book which aired on television a few years ago and is now available on DVD. While recently shopping, I chanced to find a copy at Target even though I wasn't specifically searching for it, and I am now looking forward to watching it soon. Overall, The Christmas Shoes is an amazing book that made me cry like I don't think any other story ever has, but also left me with some very profound food for thought. Enjoy isn't quite the right word for such a heart-wrenching read, but it was a beautiful and utterly moving experience that has touched my heart and mind in inexplicable ways with its pure and simple expression of the true meaning of the holiday season. I highly recommend this book to all readers. Just be sure to have a box of tissues handy for the inevitable flood of tears.
Note: This book has no objectionable content, so in my opinion, would be suitable for teen readers and possibly even pre-teens as long as they wouldn't be bothered by the highly emotional nature of the subject matter.
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