Grace Livingston Hill is the grandmother of all of us inspirational romance authors. If you read or write inspirational fiction today, you owe Hill a tremendous debt. At the turn of the last century, when women were not always encouraged to work outside the home, a recently-widowed Hill was able to support herself and her child by writing stories that wove a message of faith together with delightful romance and dramatic suspense.
Her stories were like bread and butter to me growing up, and as I chronicled, led me to my path as an inspy romance writer. I have a few that will always be my favorites, but the one I want to talk about today is The Substitute Guest (1936). This is a Christmas story, and it was written in the middle of the Great Depression. We have a tendency nowadays to look back on this era and think, “Wow, they really knew how to celebrate Christmas back then,” but in Hill’s world, Christmas was a battle between crass materialism and meaning and faith even during the good old days.
Our hero, Alan Monteith, is headed to his girlfriend’s winter lodge to celebrate. But this celebration rings hollow:
There would be excitement and hilarity, there would be amusement and a wealth of unique variety. There would be luxury of eating and drinking and apparel, but it would not be Christmas, not real Christmas. (page 8)
Alan is waylaid on the way to his party when he attempts to do a good deed for a friend, and ends up snowbound with the Devereaux family, a mother and father and their two grown children. One of these children is Daryl, our heroine. She is fighting feelings of resentment and loss when her fiance blows her off for a drunken hotel party with his boss and coworkers. Alan is able to complete his errand with the help of the family, and ends up staying with them during the worst part of a blizzard.
During this blizzard, the Devereaux clan welcomes Alan as one of their own, and he gets the joy of celebrating a real, old-fashioned Christmas in the country.
There was a quiet sense of being shut in that gave security and a new kind of peace. He wasn’t going to feel badly if he had to stay the day out here among these delightful sincere people. He had a feeling as he woke that he was a little boy again waking on Christmas morning, with the thrill of anticipation that he used to feel as a child. It was great. He lay still for a little just to keep that delightful sense of expectancy. (page 141)
Sparks fly between Daryl and Alan as they realize how much they long for security and peace along with love. In order to embrace each other, they must cast aside all the worldly materialism that their respective lovers represent. And, as in any good inspirational story, the development of their faith is just as profound as the deepening of their love.
And no discussion of Hill’s books would be complete without mentioning the domestic coziness she weaves into every story. When I finish reading one of her books, I want to bake cookies, sew new curtains for the living room, and make a pretty flower arrangement in a pickle jar–all at the same time. Here’s a sweet passage from The Substitute Guest:
Simple breakfast, Mrs. Devereaux had said.
There was wonderful oatmeal, steamed all night until each grain stood out softly and separately, with Chrystobel’s cream to eat on it, cream almost as thick as the oatmeal. Eaten in old Haviland china saucers with springs of forget-me-not on them, and a silver spoon so old it was almost paper thin. Then there were hot rolls and doughnuts and coffee! Simple breakfast indeed! (page 153)
I always crave oatmeal after reading that passage. With cream, of course!
I have a battered old first edition of this book that I save every year to read throughout the season. It’s a warm and loving tale and if you haven’t read any of Hill’s books, first I must say shame on you, and then I must say “read this one!” It’s one of my favorite holiday traditions; in fact, I pack it away so I am not tempted to read it throughout the year.
What are your favorite Christmas stories? Tell me what stories you save up to read during the Christmas season, and I will enter you in a drawing to win one vintage copy of The Substitute Guest. Contest is open to US residents only; please include a valid email address when you comment. Contest ends December 1, 2012. I look forward to hearing about your favorite reads!