The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward is a moving, magical seasonal tale. It centers on Abbey, who is bravely fighting cancer and staying positive in the face of an impending threat to the family business. Her husband and grown up sons are all that matter to her. She puts off retirement as she loves her work with the kindergarten but she little expects she’ll have a more important job to do soon. Part of the estate she recently inherited from her father includes a barn where Thomas looks after reindeer. Abbey finds herself continually drawn to this spot – for a very good reason. When she brings her sons and their partners there at Christmas, the girls show their true sides. One of them, Meg, is reserved and sharp, but both Abbey and the reindeer work their magic on her. The family becomes very close as Abbey becomes more ill. And she still has to appoint the next reindeer keeper.
Can stark adult-centred realism – cancer, possible looming bankruptcy, unhappy partnerships – work successfully alongside magic and fairy tale? In this author’s hands, it can. Somehow we know from the start that Thomas is a special person and he is the bridge between ours and Abbey’s world and the magical one of Santa and Christmas. Having grown-ups as the ones who enter Santa’s realm makes this story all the more powerful. It’s never too late to believe in him again. There are flashbacks to the past in the letters that Santa has kept and reads back to the people who wrote them long ago. They held the clues as to how special these people were going to be – special enough to be chosen by Santa. The realism-magic juxtaposition is echoed in the death and birth we see in this book. Death is harsh and final, and birth is always miraculous with its promise of all that is to come. Without the other, there wouldn’t be balance. Real life and fairy tale, real people and magical characters, despair and hope – these opposites unite in Barbara Briggs Ward’s beautiful story to bring us the true spirit of Christmas and humanity.
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