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How Far to Bethlehem by Norah Lofts


How Far to Bethlehem by Norah Lofts

Postby annis » Tue December 20th, 2011, 6:36 pm

Given the season, I was inspired to read Norah Lofts’ retelling of the Nativity, which I’ve been meaning to get around to for years. She doesn't deviate from the King James version of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew which were clearly her foundation, and miraculous events like the Annunciation are treated as real. The difference lies in Lofts’ ability to turn the stiff little figures seen in Nativity dioramas into living, breathing people with their anxieties, hopes and dreams. Using the storyteller's art, she recreates their everyday lives so vividly and with such empathy that How Far to Bethlehem? is genuinely moving, even for a cynic like me.

Those familiar with the Bible (all those Sunday School lessons did come in handy) will appreciate the biblical allusions, the appearance of secondary characters who will become significant in Jesus' later life and the references that foreshadow his fate. I don't feel that the reading experience of those not familiar with the Bible would be affected, though - the story works well in its own right just as a historical novel.

One thing modern readers will miss is the sort of historical and/or author’s note we’ve become accustomed to, but which historical novelists of the past didn’t feel any need to add. Lofts readily mixes real historical events and places with fictional ones – you won’t find the city of Jexel on Google, for example. It seems to be a composite created along the lines of Babylon or Persepholis. Nor will you find the rose jekkel, a gold coin whose recurring image appears throughout the story. My guess is that it was based on the gold staters which would have spread around the Middle East during the period when Alexander the Great’s Macedonian successors ruled in Persia and Egypt. Given Lofts’ use of allusion in this book, I think it likely the fictional rose jekkel is a homage to Mary, one of whose later titles was “Rosa Mundi” (rose of the world).

Recommended for anyone feeling the need for a bit of genuine Christmas spirit.

Review at Historical Novels info:

The Journey of the Magi
Last edited by annis on Thu December 22nd, 2011, 5:07 pm, edited 16 times in total.

Location: Arizona, USA

Postby Ash » Wed December 21st, 2011, 2:26 am

The difference lies in Lofts’ ability to turn the stiff little figures seen in Nativity dioramas into living, breathing people with their anxieties, hopes and dreams. Using the storyteller's art, she recreates their everyday lives so vividly and with such empathy that How Far to Bethlehem? is genuinely moving, even for a cynic like me

Perfect review. Even this Jewish reader loved this book. It was one of the first books by Loft that I had read (the first one was Bless This House) and I was hooked. Very well done.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
Location: California Bay Area

Postby MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed December 21st, 2011, 2:30 am

Thanks for the review. Maybe I need to read something seasonal. I'm rather stuck in a 'bah humbug' mood.
I blog at http://emilylcotton.com merry scrivener of fact & fiction historical, animal, & minimal to amuse, inform & enlighten
my passions: fair trade, ending slavery, and justice.
"Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects." Will Rogers
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Location: Nottingham UK

Postby EC2 » Wed December 21st, 2011, 4:33 pm

How Far to Bethlehem was one of the historical novels I read in my early teens. I loved it - in fact it's still somewhere around on my keeper shelf. Norah Lofts was one of my writer heroines and inspirations when I began writing - far more so than Jean Plaidy. Lofts always spoke to me in a more engaging way.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal


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Compulsive Reader
Location: Northeast Scotland

Postby Lisa » Thu December 20th, 2012, 12:01 pm

Well I finally finished reading How Far to Bethlehem? last night, and I just thought it was brilliant. Now I'm not really up on my Bible stories - I'm only familiar with what I suppose are the most well-known ones - but I have read the story of the Nativity and in this book Lofts really has breathed life into the rather dry and impersonally described characters of the original.

Over the years I've read a few other different takes on the story and its characters - last Christmas I read Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery, for example, with its rather 'cute' interpretation. How Far to Bethlehem? has been the best version by far. I really sympathised with the characters; they were all very human, but taking on 'superhuman' tasks. The amazing events taking place were made more believable by the fact that I could identify with the characters - Mary, with her sympathy for the donkeys, Melchior, exactly like a very intelligent but common sense-lacking, 'head-in-the-clouds' friend of mine. There were tear-jerking scenes (Senya's farewell to Melchior, the shepherd in the deepest depths of despair but still considerate of others), there was hope for all, and in the end everything tied together nicely. Small things mentioned at the beginning of the book served their purpose later and were not forgotten (e.g. the rose jekkal that Elisabeth and Zacharias gave as a wedding gift), and the few events/characters that didn't seem to be followed up later (like the young boy whose father was one of the hill bandits) I assumed were related to other Bible stories that I don't know. Every one of the characters' stories was interesting and made me feel something, and the way Lofts had written and described made it very easy to imagine each scene taking place. I can't come up with any complaints about this novel, to be honest.

A wonderful book to read over the Christmas period.


Postby annis » Fri December 21st, 2012, 8:11 am

Glad you enjoyed this, Lady of Bennachie - it really is a heart-warming story.

Yes, the meeting with the bandit’s young son both introduces a character who will be significant in Jesus’ life and also foreshadows Jesus’ later fate.

As an adult, this boy Barabbas would be a prisoner awaiting execution at the time of Jesus’ trial by the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate, held during the Passover. Some say Barabbas was a bandit, but it’s more likely that he was a Jewish Zealot (freedom fighter) and therefore perhaps a bit of a hero to the local Jews suffering oppression under the Romans. Apparently it was a goodwill custom to release one prisoner at Passover, and Pilate, convinced that Jesus was innocent, asked the crowd if he should be the one freed. To his dismay they instead shouted for Barabbas to be released. Pilate gave in to their demands and so Barabbas walked free and Jesus was sacrificed.

Some theologians have argued that the name Barabbas, meaning “son of the father” is significant, because by not naming him as the son of any specific man it symbolically makes him the “Everyman” for whom Jesus died on the Cross.("Bar" in Hebrew has a similar function to the Scottish "Mac")

The donkey, too, is a significant not only to Mary's story but that of Jesus, whose triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey a week before his crucifixion and resurrection is marked in the Christian Calendar by Palm Sunday. Entering the Holy City on a humble donkey rather than a conquering king's magnificent war horse not only fulfilled an ancient prophecy about the coming of the Messiah, but also signalled Jesus' desire to be seen as the Prince of Peace.

Quite a few of these biblical allusions are tucked away within How Far to Bethlehem?, but as I said earlier I don’t think it matters at all if a reader is unaware of them.
Last edited by annis on Fri December 21st, 2012, 9:42 pm, edited 26 times in total.

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Compulsive Reader
Location: Northeast Scotland

Postby Lisa » Fri December 21st, 2012, 9:41 am

Thanks annis! I didn't know about either Barabbas or the donkey, and did suspect there were quite a few more allusions I wasn't picking up on. You're right though - considering how much I enjoyed it, it just goes to show that anyone can enjoy this book, whether aware of all the biblical references or not.

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