THE CHRISTMAS BUS is a sweet tale by prolific author Melody Carlson that entertains while encouraging readers to embrace the true spirit of Christmas. Edith Ryan is the cheerful, glass-half-full owner of Shepherd's Inn in the quaint town of Christmas Valley (population 2,142). Her husband, Charles, is the local pastor of Christmas Valley's only remaining church. After 25 years, Christmas Valley has revitalized its economy by becoming the "Christmas capital of the world," complete with Mrs. Santa's Diner (don't miss the "Blitzen Burgers") and the North Pole Coffee Shop. Tourism rules.
So it's a problem when Collin and Amy, a young married couple expecting their first baby, roll into town in a psychedelic broken-down bus nicknamed "Queenie" and detract from the carefully-staged ambiance. With no money and the birth of the baby imminent, it's only the kind heart of Edith Ryan that turns the town's hostility toward the young couple around --- and changes Amy and Collin's view of Christianity.
But Edith has her own set of problems. For the first time, her adult children and young grandchildren won't be making the trip to the B&B to spend Christmas with them. In a fit of inspiration, she decides to offer a discounted Christmas package for those folks who need a place to stay --- and people to be with --- over the holidays. The inn soon fills up as it attracts a motley assortment of lodgers for the holidays. Lauren and Michael Thomas are a pleasant, 30-something couple who have problems that seem insurmountable. Jim Fields and his wife Carmen constantly squabble. Divorcée Leslie and her young daughter Megan are a pleasant addition to the cast of characters, giving Carlson a chance to throw in a little romantic intrigue. Albert Benson is an elderly widower who seems to have lost the joy of living.
Myrtle Pinkerton is a crotchety elderly woman who seems to promise nothing but trouble. But, as Edith reminds herself, "this Christmas was about being hospitable to strangers. And she'd certainly never had a guest who was any stranger than Myrtle Pinkerton!" Myrtle seems intent on disrupting the peace of Christmas Valley, from making a scene in the local coffee shop to getting involved with the Christmas pageant at the church. When she decides to add live animals to the program, things threaten to fall apart. Then, when Edith's heirloom porcelain angel disappears, it seems certain that one of the guests has broken or stolen it. Will suspicion ruin their Christmas together? Edith takes her problems to God in prayer, and all ends well, as readers will expect.
The story moves along smoothly, and although most of the characters are lightly sketched, readers will bond with the delightful Edith Ryan and roll their eyes over the cantankerous Myrtle. Yes, there are clichés here --- the Victorian B&B (a staple in faith fiction), the allegorical "no room in the inn" seen before in faith fiction, and the angel in disguise. But in Carlson's capable hands (she's a Gold Medallion and Rita Award winner), the plot line transcends the clichés and is warm and endearing. The pretty page designs and attractive cover make this a natural for gift-giving.
In a season that is too often rife with a preoccupation for material things, Carlson reminds us that one of the true gifts of Christmas is reaching out to those in need, and perhaps entertaining angels unawares.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby.