Summary: Christmas is coming and Marty and his rescued pup Shiloh are sure glad about that—for their town is sure low on love and understanding and they hope that the joy of the holiday will bring with it the generosity of spirit that’s so lacking.
It’s been a year since Marty Preston rescued Shiloh from Judd Travers and his cruel ways, and since then, Marty and Shiloh have been inseparable. Anywhere Marty goes, the beagle’s at his side, and Marty couldn’t be happier about that. Even Judd has been working to improve his reputation.
But just as townsfolk grow more accepting of Judd, a fire in the woods destroys many homes, including Judd’s, and Judd’s newly formed reputation. Doubt, blame, and anger spread faster than the flames—flames that are fanned by the new minister, who seems fonder of fire and brimstone than love and mercy. And why are his daughters so skittish around him? And what’s happened to Judd’s dogs? With Christmas right around the corner, Marty has a lot of questions, and how they’re answered might just take a Christmas miracle.
I was surprised how little the story is actually about Shiloh. There are many references to the original classic novel so the reader doesn't need to worry about remembering what happened in Shiloh. But the story is largely about a person's ability to change. We see how Judd has changed from his abusive ways, and in the end, we see the new minister is capable of great change, too.
While a fire tests the community's strength and resiliency, the Bible-thumping new minister brings his own kind of fire to the community. He preaches about sin and the fires of hell, warning of a vengeful God to those who stray from His path, as was common in the South at this time. Marty's family does not take well to his way of teaching the Bible. Though religion is a major theme, the characters do not encourage the readers to accept this way of thinking. Especially when the readers learn that the minister is as fiery at home with his children and wife as he is at church.
Yes, child abuse is a startling theme of the novel. Besides the heavy religious themes in the long-winded Old Testament sermons from the preacher, parents and educators need to be aware that there is emotional/psychological child abuse. HOWEVER, the novel is set during early 20th century West Virginia. Marty's parents comment that while the preacher's discipline methods are frowned upon, they are NOT illegal and they consider it to be in his right, so long as he does not resort to violence. That is the accepted social thinking of the time period.
Due to the mature content, I'd like to be clear about what is in this book:
- The preacher never hits his children and has never hit his children. They never have marks or injuries to suggest physical abuse. The eldest daughter confirms he does NOT beat them
- The abuse all takes place OFF-PAGE
- The eldest child is locked in a cold shed with no coat and no bathroom, for an unknown amount of time
- They used to own a chair with manacles of some sort to restrain the kids (the eldest daughter managed to throw it out)
- The youngest was forced to put her feet in ice water as punishment
- The youngest was forced to put all her food in her milk and drink it as punishment
- The wife and children all show outward anxiety about defying the preacher. He is severely strict, limiting their social engagements with others
Overall, the content does not feel inappropriate for middle grade readers. It is NOT graphic or upsetting, I would advise it is best for ages 10 & up. As long as the reader can appreciate the historical cultural views and the fact that the protagonist's family sees this behaviour as wrong, I don't see it as being an issue.
A Shiloh Christmas is the fourth book in The Shiloh Quartet. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is an award-winning author whose stories are very much worth the read. The book ends with a warm-and-fuzzy hopeful Christmas moment for the minister's family. In a Christmas miracle, it seems he has seen the error of his ways. It is the holidays, after all!
I very much enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to anyone looking for a new children's classic for middle grade readers! It is a heart-warming holiday tale about friendship, about a heroic dog, and the lesson that people can change for the better.