Thursday, August 4, 2022

Review: The Last Noel by Michael Malone

Novels set at Christmas are often sweet, the equivalent of Hallmark movies. This isn't always a bad thing (a much loved member of my own family adores these movies) but sometimes you crave a little more substance in your stories. Michael Malone's The Last Noel has that substance mixed with some lovely heartwarming moments and some tear jerking moments as well.

Noni Tilden, the wealthy, white daughter of a banking family in a small Southern town was born on Christmas Eve. Kaye King, the poor, black grandson of the Tilden's long-time maid, Aunt Ma, was born early the next morning on Christmas Day. In 1963, the Christmas when Noni and Kaye are seven, Kaye climbs through her window in the middle of the night and urges her to come outside to play in the snow with him on the sled that's waiting for her under the Christmas tree. And so begins a life-long relationship which sees Noni and Kaye's lives intertwine in ways both expected and unexpected.

The story of Noni and Kaye spans forty years, twelve Christmases, and an immeasurable distance of the heart. Despite their clear differences, their initial bonding over the snow and the sled binds them together no matter all of the changes in their lives and in the world as a whole. Once close, their lives will diverge as Noni marries and sacrifices her earlier dreams and as Kaye joins the Black Power Movement before going on to become a respected doctor. The story is both epic, touching national, historical, and political events of note, and personal, showing the effect of those events on individual people and families, in its scope. Checking in on the dramas, joys, and tragedies of family life on occasional Christmases over the years, the story of Noni and Kaye's interconnectedness and their deep abiding love for each other, by turns innocent, troubled, remote, supportive, heartbreaking, and heart warming all, is a fitting tale for the holidays. The South of the story is a mild evocation, a fairly genteel South, and its ills are acknowledged and confronted but mostly easily addressed. But the framework of reality is there nonetheless. Not your usual holiday read, this is a good one for readers interested in a seasonally appropriate story that isn't sentimental and over the top twee. Well written and epic in scope, this is Noni and Kaye's story but also a tale of the US writ small.

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