Today I have Penny Musco talking about her book The Christmas Child.Welcome, Penny.
Tell us about your favorite character in the book.
Well, I’d have to say the main female protagonist, Hannah, because she’s…me! That is, me set in 1890s New York. I’ve struggled with infertility and adoption, wrestling with them in the context of my faith.
Do you read the reviews and comments of your readers?
I read them, because that’s how I know whether I’ve provided an enjoyable book. An editor’s opinion is one thing, but to me, readers’ thoughts are the bottom line.
How much of yourself do you put into your books?
A lot! Everything in a writer’s life is grist for the mill, as the saying goes, so what happens to me usually ends up somewhere in my writing. I suppose it’s a kind of therapy, working through issues through my characters. Also, I love using details of places I’ve been. I’m familiar with New York City, and I like to put my characters in the areas I know. I also enjoy history, so I incorporate historical happenings and events it into my books. In The Christmas Child, I reference Jacob Riis’ 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, which exposed the awful conditions in Lower Manhattan’s tenements. And because a few characters are Italian, like my husband’s family, I find it fun to name characters after his relatives (I’m working on another romance in which I use my family names!)
Some people believe that being a published author is glamorous. Is that true?
You know, my husband’s job is in technical theatre and people think that’s glamorous, too. Years ago, someone was talking to us about our professions, and kept telling us we were “living the dream” (I think that was because he disliked his job and longed to go into an artist field). My husband finally replied, exasperated, “It’s a job, just like anyone else’s!” I feel the same. I write articles as well as books, and it’s really not very glamorous to sit in front of a computer by yourself, and to have to keep querying editors looking for work. Being at home while I’m doing this provides lots of distractions. I constantly fight procrastination, because I have nobody breathing down my neck telling me to get to work.
I cut out a cartoon several years ago that neatly summarizes what it sometimes feels like to be a freelancer. It shows a couple at a restaurant table, and the man says to the woman, “I totally hate my job. The boss is a lazy jerk who never gets off his deadbeat butt and is dragging the company down with him. I sure wish I could quit.” The caption: The Problem With Being Self-Employed.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you met any of them and found yourself having a fan-girl moment?
As I mentioned before, I’m interested in history, reading both non-fiction and historical fiction. In the latter category, I enjoy the mother-and-son writing team who work under the name of Charles Todd, authoring the Bess Crawford mystery series set during World War I. Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a fun, lighthearted read that makes me want to visit Botswana. I interviewed him several years ago, and he is as delightful as his books!
Penny has been gracious to share a chapter of her book. Read a chapter 3 excerpt of The Christmas Child available from Pelican Book Group.
The Christmas Child excerpt (Chapter 3)
The afternoon sun brightened the parlor as Hannah settled into a plush chair. The worries and cares that Robert had kissed away last night weighed heavily on her once more. She had lain awake long after he dropped off to sleep, eventually falling into an uneasy slumber.
Apparently Robert had decided to let her rest when he got up for work and instructed Rosa not to rouse her either, because she hadn’t opened her eyes until almost ten o’clock. As a result, her morning routine was entirely off. It wasn’t until now, after lunch, that she took the time for her devotions.
She picked up her Bible from a cloth covered side table. She found it hard to imagine that only last year this Book had meant practically nothing to her. She thought back to the circumstances that had changed her life, and half smiled. Carolina had a part in that, too…
Last fall, her friend had taken it into her head that she wanted to attend a suffragist gathering at a church uptown, and invited Hannah to accompany her.
“I can’t possibly! What would I tell Robert? He doesn’t like them at all!”
“Oh, he’ll never know.” Carolina dismissed her concerns with a wave of a dainty hand. “All you have to tell him is that you’re going to a ladies’ meeting.”
Hannah couldn’t help but laugh. “You never fail to amaze me with the wealth of tricks you have up your sleeve. If I remember correctly, you were always the one who got us into trouble when we were children. But, tell me, how is it that this church is letting these ‘rabble rousers’ use their building?”
“The speaker’s daddy is a very influential, very wealthy member of the congregation, and anything his darling wants, he gets for her, and anything he wants, the church gets for him. Now what do you say? I think it will be very entertaining.”
Carolina finally persuaded her. The growing anxiety over not producing a child had begun to gnaw at her, and Hannah decided that maybe this was just the kind of diversion she needed.
“All right, but you have to pick me up, then bring me back before nine, otherwise Robert will be suspicious.”
As it turned out, she needn’t have worried, because on the day of the meeting, Robert told her he was dining with Mr. Duff at the Union Club, and wouldn’t be home until late. Then, in the early afternoon, Carolina sent word that she was sick with a bad cold, but she was sending her own carriage for her anyway so she could attend and “report back.” Hannah was just about to return a note saying she wouldn’t go either, when she realized she’d been looking forward to it.
And so that evening found her waiting for her ride in her tiny vestibule, frowning at the downpour outside. When the carriage pulled up, she selected a large umbrella from the stand and hurried to the door the driver held open.
“You know where to go?” she asked him as she climbed in.
The showers poured down on a nearly deserted Fifth Avenue. She began to wonder whatever had possessed her to venture out in such terrible weather when the carriage stopped.
The driver helped her down and promised to return before nine. Hannah flew up the steps to the church, and once inside, paused to shake the rain from her umbrella and cape. She heard an unfamiliar tune being heartily sung inside, and was startled when a man suddenly appeared next to her. She had expected to see only women.
“May I escort you to a seat, madam?” He courteously offered his arm.
Flustered, Hannah nodded. She was even more surprised to see several males in the audience. Up front, a corpulent man advanced to the pulpit, his serious face framed with a white beard and sideburns, and crowned with a full head of snowy hair.
She turned to the older gentleman. “But…is this the…I mean, where are all the women?”
He gave her a puzzled look and gestured with his hand. “There are a quite a few women here, and I assure you you have nothing to fear.”
“No, you don’t understand.” Hannah gathered up her courage. “Isn’t this the suffragist meeting?”
This seemed to amuse the usher. “Mercy, no! This is Mr. Moody’s evangelistic crusade!”
Hannah looked around in panic. “I must not be in the right church!”
The usher cleared his throat. “From what I understand, that gathering is a few blocks north of here.”
She rushed to the door and peered out into the deluge. In the distance, the carriage that had brought her turned the corner, and she knew it would be useless to try to call it back. She could always walk, but in this weather, the prospect didn’t appeal to her.
“Madam.” The gentleman had followed her. “I don’t presume to know the state of your soul, but perhaps God has a reason for this mix up tonight. Won’t you stay?”
Hannah hesitated. There seemed to be little she could do and, she had to admit, she was a bit intrigued. No one had ever seriously questioned her religious beliefs before. At her church, one paid a premium for a pew, attended every week and considered his obligation to God fulfilled. Naturally, she had heard of Dwight L. Moody and his campaigns in Chicago and abroad, and she vaguely remembered his New York meetings at the Great Roman Hippodrome in 1876 when she was ten. But never once had she considered that his message had anything to do with her. Yet here she was, stuck in the wrong place with really no choice but to listen to him.
She sighed in resignation. “Yes, I’ll go in.”
The well-known evangelist, introduced as just arrived from a tour of the Pacific coast, began to speak as Hannah slipped into the back pew.
“Some years ago a gentleman came to me and asked which I thought was the most precious promise of all those that Christ left. I took some time to look them over, but I gave it up. I found that I could not answer the question. It is like a man with a large family of children, he cannot tell which he likes best; he loves them all. But if not the best, this is one of the sweetest promises of all: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”
Hannah wondered if her minister had ever read this verse out loud in church. It didn’t seem familiar at all, but its profound simplicity struck her. In spite of herself, she listened intently.
“If I wanted to find a person who had rest I would not go among the very wealthy. The man that we read of in the twelfth chapter of Luke, thought he was going to get rest by multiplying his goods, but he was disappointed. ’Soul, take thine ease.’ I venture to say that there is not a person in this wide world who has tried to find rest in that way and found it.
“Money cannot buy it. Many a millionaire would gladly give millions if he could purchase it as he does his stocks and shares. God has made the soul a little too large for this world. Roll the who world in, and still there is room. There is care in getting wealth, and more care in keeping it.
“Nor would I go among the pleasure seekers. They have a few hours’ enjoyment, but the next day there is enough sorrow to counterbalance. They may drink a cup of pleasure today, but the cup of pain comes on tomorrow.
“To find rest I would never go among the politicians, or among the so-called great. Congress is the last place on earth that I would go. In the Lower House they want to go to the Senate; in the Senate they want to go to the Cabinet; and then they want to go to the White House; and rest has never been found there.” The crowd chuckled knowingly.
“Nor would I go among the halls of learning. ‘Much study is a weariness to the flesh.’ I would not go among the upper ten, the ‘bon ton,’ for they are constantly chasing after fashion. Have you not noticed their troubled faces on our streets? And the face is index to the soul. They have no hopeful look. Their worship of pleasure is slavery. Solomon tried pleasure and found bitter disappointment, and down the ages has come the bitter cry, ‘All is vanity.’”
Hannah’s mind whirled. She’d never before heard anyone speak with such forthrightness and conviction. Mr. Moody’s words stirred something deep inside her, and she felt as if he were talking right at her.
“Now for something positive. I would go successfully to someone who has heard the sweet voice of Jesus and has laid his burden down at the cross. There is rest, sweet rest. Thousands could certify to this blessed fact. “
“Among all his writings, St. Augustine has nothing sweeter than this: ‘Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart is restless till it rests in Thee.’”
“I like to have a text like this because it takes us all in. ‘Come unto me all ye that labor.’ That doesn’t mean a select few—refined ladies and cultured men. It doesn’t mean good people only. It applies to saint and sinner. Hospitals are for the sick, not for healthy people. Do you think that Christ would shut the door in anyone’s face and say, ‘I did not mean all; I only meant certain ones?’
“Now, there are a good many believers who think this text applies only to sinners. It is just the thing for them too. What do we see today? The Church, Christian people, all loaded down with cares and troubles. ‘Come unto me all ye that labor.’ All! I believe that includes the Christian whose heart is burdened with some great sorrow.
“If you cannot come to Christ as a saint, come as a sinner. But if you are a saint with some trouble or care, bring it to Him. Saint and sinner, come!”
With Mr. Moody’s invitation ringing in the air, the organ began to play softly. The great preacher sat down, and a gentleman with big mutton chop whiskers took his place at the pulpit.
“I found this hymn in a small paper published in London,” the man told the assembly. “It was said to be a favorite song of the fishermen on the north coast of England, and they were often heard singing it as they approached their harbors in the time of storm.” The music swelled, and he began to sing in a powerful voice:
The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide,
A shelter in the time of storm;
Secure whatever ill betide,
A shelter in the time of storm.
Oh, Jesus is a Rock in a weary land,
A weary land,
A weary land,
Oh, Jesus is a Rock in a weary land,
A shelter in the time of storm.
Hannah watched a line of people form in the aisle, with men and women streaming down from the balcony as well. The singer, whom she guessed to be the famous Ira Sankey, continued:
A shade by day, defense by night,
A shelter in the time of storm…
The usher who had escorted her in suddenly appeared at her side. “And you, Madam, what will you do with Jesus? Will you come, as Mr. Moody invited, whether you are a saint or sinner?”
“I…I don’t know. I’ve been deeply affected by what he’s said, and I’d like to know more.”
“Walk with me then, won’t you, and talk to my wife.” He led her into a crowded room off the sanctuary, where a smiling older woman indicated a seat next to her.
“How can I help you tonight, my dear?” she asked.
Hannah leaned forward. “Is Mr. Moody saying I need to do something more to please God? Isn’t attending church, being a good person, and trying to follow His rules enough?”
The counselor, introduced by her husband as Elvira Murray, opened her Bible. “The book of Romans declares: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.’ So you see, none of us is ‘good,’ none of us follows God’s rules completely all the time. We are all seeking quite the opposite, our own pleasures and comfort, as Mr. Moody so eloquently preached tonight. And the Lord calls that sin.”
Hannah nodded. She thought of her devotion to her house, clothes, and other worldly things, and Robert’s burning desire to get ahead at the bank.
“The good news is that God loves us and has taken care of our sin,” Mrs. Murray continued. “Further on in Romans, it says that His free gift is eternal life through His Son, Jesus. It is by Him taking the punishment for our sin by dying on the cross that we’re ‘saved,’ that is, spared from eternal damnation. And, of course, He helps us in this life, too.”
“What you say makes so much sense,” Hannah said, “but why haven’t I heard it before?”
Mrs. Murray sighed sadly. “Bits and pieces of the gospel are scattered here and there in most churches today, but no great effort is made to tie it all together or explain that one must consciously choose to follow the Lord. Now that you know, though, will you come to Jesus, trusting Him as your Savior and Lord? You won’t have all the answers tonight, but you know enough to make a decision.”
Her head was full of contradictory thoughts. On one hand, she knew the restlessness of which the evangelist spoke, and recognized her selfish seeking after her own desires and pleasures. But was it really so easy to have that assurance and forgiveness? All she had to do was say yes?
As if reading her mind, Mrs. Murray said, “When I first decided to follow the Lord, I wondered why everyone didn’t! The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is blessedly simple. Praise the Lord He made it so! I found out that most people haven’t been given the opportunity. In another part of Romans, the apostle Paul writes, ‘How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?’ It is my fondest hope that tonight, now that you’ve heard, you will call on the Lord.”
And so she had. She knew now that she had been brought to the wrong church not by a driver’s mistake, but by her heavenly Father’s divine plan, so that she would hear what she never had before.
The consequences of her commitment were profound. The tiny seed of faith planted that night had taken root and grown over these past five months. And while she realized she still had much to learn, she knew she could never turn back to her old way of life.
Robert didn’t fully understand what had happened to her and resisted any discussion of spiritual matters, although he agreed to attend the new church with her. Carolina first had been amused at the story and then aghast at the changes in her, and also refused to talk about it. These strains in her most important relationships were what she prayed about most.
But the sudden hunger for God’s Word comforted her. Before that November evening, having a Bible for picking up and reading had never seemed necessary, because the minister at her former church narrated the applicable portions in the weekly service. But she had been seized with a desire to find out for herself what the Scriptures said. Of course, the Jessups had a family Bible, whose size made it impractical for everyday use, so she had purchased the soft, leather-bound one she now held in her hand.
She flipped through the pages. On Sunday, the pastor had mentioned the name of Hannah in passing, while talking about the prophet Samuel, and she was eager to learn the story of her Biblical namesake. She found what she was looking for in chapter one of First Samuel.
Hannah scanned the text with growing amazement. Here was a woman with the same problem as hers!
Her eyes locked in on one verse. “The Lord had shut up her womb.” A sudden chill ran down her spine. Was it because of something both of us Hannahs had done—or not done?
She read further. “And she vowed a vow, and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life…”
She had prayed for a child! The Hannah of old, like her, had wept, grieved, and even lost her appetite over her childlessness, and dared to ask the Lord to give her a son!
She struggled to remember what the pastor had said about Samuel. He had been the last judge, and anointed both Saul and David as kings. He was obviously a very important Biblical figure to have two books named after him. And his life had begun with the desperate prayer of a childless woman!
The priest Eli had assured the biblical Hannah that the Lord would grant her request, and “she went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.” The chapter closed out with the birth of her son: “’For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord.’”
God hadn’t chastised Samuel’s mother for asking Him for a child, but instead had answered her prayer! The passage didn’t seem to indicate that she had done anything wrong. Did that mean she too, a modern-day Hannah, could ask God to do the same for her? Could she really bring this weighty sorrow to the Lord?
Well, why not, she chided herself. Wasn’t the pastor always saying Christians could pray about anything?
Hannah slipped from her seat and knelt, heedless of her fawn-colored silk shirtwaist with its fine edging, her arms resting on the chair’s buttoned upholstery. “Lord, you know how much I want children, and like my namesake of so long ago, I’m deeply grieved because I don’t have any. I confess, also like her, sometimes I’m bitter, too.” She took a deep breath. “But…if it’s Your will, I ask You now for a child. I don’t care whether it’s a son or daughter, but I too will dedicate him or her to You forever.”
She didn’t know how long she remained there lost in prayer, but the shadows in the parlor had lengthened considerably when she heard the front door open.
At the sound of Robert’s voice she rose, her face no longer sad, and her soul at peace now that she had committed her deepest heartache to the Lord.
Penny is a freelance writer with clips from a variety of publications, including AARP, Costco Connection and several AAA magazines, among others. She’s also the author of two books. Life Lessons from the National Parks: Meeting God in America’s Most Glorious Places (Sonfire Media), which won an Excellence in Editing award from the Christian Editor Connection in 2017. Here, Penny discusses her ebook, The Christmas Child, published in December, 2018 by Pelican Publishing Group.