The Ghost of Christmas Past” by Rhys Bowen is not all fuzzy and happy. There is a sinister atmosphere of sorrow that is also a part of this story. As Christmas is approaching, the characters must overcome their own set of heartaches that revolve around losing a child. But thankfully, the spirit of Christmas rings through and the ending is one that will put a smile on reader’s faces.
Because of a disaster in the previous book, “Time Of Fog And Fire,” the main character, Molly Murphy, sacrifices her body to save her husband. This book begins in December 1906 where Molly feels the despair of having recently miscarried because of her physical hardships. Now, instead of spending Christmas in their home, her husband, Daniel, accepts an invitation to spend the Christmas holiday at a mansion on the Hudson with his mother.
Not long after they arrive, Molly discovers that the hostess Winnie’s moodiness is based on the disappearance of her daughter 10 years ago on Christmas Eve. Molly is able to sympathize with Winnie and is spurred on to investigate the mystery behind the daughter disappearing. A quote summarizes the feelings, “Too lose a beloved daughter. It is an ache in the heart that never goes away.” As Molly and Daniel investigate this Cold Case they realize that the mansion occupants are not completely forthcoming.
“Holidays are stressful for people who lose a loved one,” Bowen said. “I can sympathize with that because my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I flew over to be with her in Australia on Christmas Eve and actually missed Christmas Day because of the dateline. A part of me will always associate Christmas with that call that says you need to come right now. I can understand what Winnie goes through every Christmas as she has this grief while others celebrate.”
But this story is also a celebration of Christmas. Readers will yearn for the Christmas of the past when they were surrounded by a big tree, candles, extravagant food, and the family sitting around the fireplace talking and playing games together.
Comparing Christmas celebrated in 1906 with today, Bowen reminds people, “Just think there were no TVs, no videogames, and no cell phones. I was able to create an ideal Christmas that we all long for. We all have this idea of the snow, a sleigh ride, the big roaring fire, playing games, and singing carrols around the tree. We do not have the simplicity of Christmas anymore. I fantasized the Christmas I would really like with the warmth.”
The other issue explored is how women were treated in the early 20th Century. On the surface, Molly’s husband Daniel appears to be a male chauvinist. He takes charge of the family and at times makes decisions without consulting Molly. People forget that this was a different time, different culture, and different values. There seems to be a tendency to put 21st Century values into different eras instead of trying to understand the times.
Historical fiction writers, according to Bowen, need to “show people as they were in the time, but not repugnant to the modern reader. I put in this quote, ‘He could move so much more quickly with his trousers tucked into his boots than I could with all those layers of petticoats and skirts.’ A woman was expected not to work after marriage. Women could not vote and in New York State a woman could not own property. Since I am by nature a feminist I try to have all of my stories show what it was like during a particular time. I do get letters saying ‘I hate Daniel. He is such a chauvinist.’ But for this time period he is actually a good guy because he is very tolerant.”
This is a mystery with many threads. It is realistic because it shows that on the holidays there are some who suffer, some who celebrate, and some who can reflect on their loss but joyously participate in the holiday cheer. This novel will evoke old-fashioned Christmas traditions with a resolution of the mystery that will warm the heart.