An unexpected station on the way
Connie Willis goes unpretentiously but unerringly into the receptive heart in "Inn", a lovely Christmas fantasy novelet with a contemporary setting. Her heroine Sharon is a member of her church's choir, and it's the evening before Christmas Eve:
The rehearsal on the twenty-third was supposed to start at seven. By a quarter to eight the choir was still standing at the back of the sanctuary, waiting to sing the processional, the shepherds and angels were bouncing off the walls, and Reverend Wall, in his chair behind the pulpit, had nodded off. The assistant minister, Reverend Lisa Farrison, was moving poinsettias onto the chancel steps to make room for the manger, and the choir director, Rose Henderson, was on her knees, hammering wooden bases onto the cardboard palm trees. They had fallen down twice already.
"What do you think the chances are we'll still be here when it's time for the Christmas Eve service to start tomorrow night?" Sharon said, leaning against the sanctuary door.
"I' can't be," Virginia said, looking at her watch. "I've got to be out at the mall before nine. Megan suddenly announced she wants Senior Prom Barbie."
"My throat feels terrible," Dee said, feeling her glands. "Is it hot in here, or am I getting a fever?"
"It's hot in these robes," Sharon said. "Why are we wearing them? This is a rehearsal."
The minister's perennial sermon sets his theme with the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed, according to decree:
"We know nothing of that journey up from Nazareth," Reverend Wall said, in a wavering voice, "what adventures befell the young couple, what inns they stopped at along the way. All we know is that on a Christmas Eve like this one they arrived in Bethlehem, and there was no room for them at the inn."
Since we know nothing of that journey from Nazareth, Connie Willis posits here that the young couple lost their way, took a wrong turning in spacetime, and came to be knocking on a dark snowy evening at a side door of Sharon's church in America.
What Sharon does about this, more or less aided and hindered by fellow church-goers, is the story of "Inn". The plot sounds too simple to work, yet work it does. The subject matter may seem too holy for Sharon in her modern church with its children's pageant; yet isn't an understanding of that journey from Nazareth what the church ceremony is about? And aren't even the cardboard palm trees there to help give the children, and us, the sense of place at Bethlehem of long ago?
Sharon in her church is a station of the heart, and Connie Willis tells the story of Sharon and her friends and visitors in a manner perfectly simple and realistic, gentle, humorous, and moving.