The Noel Stranger (The Noel Collection, Book #3)
by Richard Paul Evans
Here’s the story, as told by the jacket: The year is 1975. Elle Sheen, a single mother who is supporting herself and her six year old biracial son, Dylan, as a waitress at the Noel Street Diner, isn’t sure what to make of William Smith when his appearance creates a stir in the small town of Mistletoe, Utah. As their lives unexpectedly entwine, Elle learns that William, a recently returned Vietnam War POW, is not only fighting demons from his past but may also have the answer to her own secret pain — a revelation that culminates in a remarkable act of love and forgiveness.
A few thoughts I had while reading: Elle is a single mom, which is hard enough, but top that with being the single mother of her biracial son in the late 70’s…in Utah. She’s a hard worker, an excellent provider for her son, and I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for her. It sounds like she works every single waking hour of the day, but still has no money to spare for anything extra — like fixing her dying car or buying a Christmas tree for the home. I love the sense of community that you see here in Mistletoe – from Loretta, the owner of the diner, to Renato, the auto-body shop owner to the women working at her son’s school. Maybe it’s a sign of the times she is living in, maybe this view of small town America is just a beautiful wish for the world. Either way, I wish I lived in a smaller community because I long for the days when people took care of one another. Renato readies himself to help Elle pay off the work for her car and then William does it for free. (Also, I was today years old when I found out that when you get work done on your car, you are charged the price of the parts + the cost of labor. Mind Blown! I don’t have my own car so this was news to me.)
Of course, there’s always one dissenter in the crowd — Ketchup Lady. She is absolutely horrid and I remember thinking to myself “this…this is EXACTLY why I hate people and why customer-facing service jobs are not for me.” I suppose she is kind of like Mistletoe’s Boo Radley, except even less likable once you interact with her. Ketchup Lady comes into the diner, every single day, sits in Elle’s section demanding heaps of ketchup on all of her food. No amount is ever enough and Elle even makes sure she has a full bottle ready at the table for her. I like ketchup, but this was insanity. Who puts on ketchup on pancakes? Ketchup Lady, that’s who!
There’s a moment towards the middle of book when Ketchup Lady allows her racist flag to fly high. She calls Elle’s son the N word – not to him, thank goodness, but says it to Elle – and she is then shocked when others in the diner tell her that she can’t say things like that and needs to leave. [Side note: At the beginning of the book, we learn that a young girl in Dylan’s class called him a Negro, which he had never heard the word up until that moment and he asks his mother about it. That whole interaction pissed me off because these kids are like five or six years old and obviously learned the word from their parents.] There always has to be one, but in this moment, I am so proud of the people of this small town for stepping in and defending Elle and Dylan. It makes me feel a little less insane when I say that there are people who know right from wrong. Granted, these are fictional characters in a fictional town, but they stem from the same writer so goodness has prevailed!
If you’ve ever read a Richard Paul Evans book, then you know he likes to put a ribbon around a story. He tends to write these beautiful, tears-of-happiness endings that prove that some things are part of our destinies in life. There’s usually a character with a secret and it’s not as bad as they make it out to be and it really makes his stories feel incredibly wholesome and warm. I’ve never put down one of his books and been dissatisfied or upset with an ending. Upset with the behaviors of a character, yes. But, and ending…never.
My rating: I think I always give an RPE book five stars, but it’s because they deserve it. Bravo!