Sunday 6 January 2019

The Homecoming Tree by Bruce Hennigan

Roy Anderson is about to make the worst decision of his life and leave his family for selfish reasons on Thanksgiving day, 2001. But, thanks to the prayers of his son, an angel sends Roy back in time to 1941 with no memories. There, he will experience the true meaning of family, sacrifice, love, and commitment when he is taken in at the Collinsworth boarding house. For a U. S. Army Corps pilot, Frank Collinsworth has not been heard from since the attack on Pearl Harbor and the family waits anxiously to see if he will return home by Christmas. Daniel, the younger Collinsworth, must decide if he will have to become the man of the house while everyone prays around the Homecoming Christmas Tree for his father’s return. Will Roy revert to the ruthless businessman he has become, or will his time spent with the Collinsworth family give him a second chance?

The Guru's Review: 

Bruce Hennigan has a new fan! This is the first novel by this author I have now read. I have 4 of his other novels in The Chronicles of Jonathan Steele waiting to be read. Having now read The Homecoming Tree, I am very impressed with Hennigan's writing, his imagination and his spiritual elements.

I was taken by the description on Amazon when I saw it was about to be novelised from the play version, I contacted the author on Facebook and asked if there would be a kindle version. He stated there would be in the near future and based on this, I volunteered to review it for him. I was sent a review copy for my Kindle but ended up buying it when the Kindle version was released.

I added this novel to the Christmas fiction list that I now read every December. I can see that this novel has the potential to become a Christmas classic and there is one movie that was brought to mind while reading this that it is similar to, and that is, "It's A Wonderful Life" (released in 1947). Despite having only seen only snippets of this movie, I picked up the similar plot lines, themes and the way of life depicted in the 1940s. Then at the end of the novel, Hennigan confirms this in his notes after the novel's ending that this movie was the inspiration for this novel. While I am not a fan of the movie, (I cannot take to Jimmy Stewart and that style of movie), I reckon The Homecoming Tree would make a great movie and one I would enjoy watching in that era!

This novel has an interesting and unique evolvement. It started out as a play called "The Night Gift". In it, a character, Mr Collinbird, was introduced and later became the character of Daniel Collinsworth in this novel. The Night Gift had Mr Collinbird tell of his most memorable Christmas where he told a very poignant story of being thirteen and going into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree because his father had not yet returned from the attack on Pearl Harbor. It proved to be one of the most powerful scenes in The Night Gift.

What followed was testimonies from Veterans for the poignancy of the plotline involving Pearl Harbour especially from one of them who was a Pearl Harbor veteran. Another was from a lady whose brother died at Pearl Harbor and she had been angry at God over his death. The play allowed her to say goodbye to her brother and find peace with his death and God for the first time since.

Hennigan's friend, Larry Robison then asked when would he be telling the story of the boy who cut down the Christmas tree. It was the events in Hennigan's life that followed from this request that formed the basis of the foundation for the telling of Mr Collinbird's story that became this novel but it is too long here to account but I encourage every reader to read these details in the Preface of the novel. These details outline that this novel is based on real events both personal, family and otherwise. It culminated in The Homecoming Tree being performed as a play in November 2005 to a "fabulous reception" and then the author spent from then until now to release it in October 2018 as a novel with some changes from the play.

On this latter point, I am so glad he did. Now this story is able to get a wider audience who will be exposed to the miraculous nature of God, the power of prayer, the affirming nature and importance of family and its dynamics that lead to a stable well-functioning society. Hennigan set this play and novel in this war-torn era as it was after WWII that everything changed from this standard. Hennigan states in the Preface that he set it in this era for the story to be

"....a breath of fresh air. This story reminds us of a time when good and evil were clearly defined; when sacrifice meant something far different from having to turn off your cell phone during dinner, when men and women rose to the challenge of ridding this world of the heinous evil of totalitarianism and genocide. It is a story of the "Greatest Generation," and I have learned much from that story. I hope you do too."
All those elements Hennigan has embedded in this story arcs. It is very noticeable and you can see how different the way of life was compared to this modern age. Successful authors recreate the era and time of the novel's time period and transport the reader there where they feel part of this setting. I definitely felt like I was there and could quite easily identify with the attitudes and behaviour of the people despite my birth being 20 years later. Like Daniel, I imagined myself as a superhero and used to play out scenes from comics and the TV shows (although there was no TV depicted in this era in this novel as this was introduced in 1948 in America).

From Hennigan's quote above, I could see another reason why he set this play and novel in the 1940s. It has to do with the spiritual climate and attitude of Americans (and probably other parts of the world too). Belief in God was more prevalent and practised in life prior to WWII. Hennigan explains in the Final Note at the back of the novel,

Someone asked me why I didn't put a more direct Christian message in this play.....I didn't have to. In......1941, the vast majority of American citizens believed in a God who had direct control of their lives and the events that were unfolding around the world. Rather than wonder where God was, they prayed to God to intervene and bring peace to the world. Prayers were said around the dinner table every night in millions of homes across the country. Entertainers routinely appealed to the intervention of God and His goodness and mercy in their radio programs, movies and personal appearances. We were a country steeped in reverence to the God of the Bible.
Things have changed. Belief in God is an exception, not the rule. Mention of God is no longer allowed in public places, and we are in danger of losing the name of God in all of our government documents, historical and current.
Hennigan's message behind the play and now the novel is from the same Final Note, you enjoy The Homecoming Tree, try and recall a time when it was okay to believe in God. A time when it was ok to talk about God and pray to (Him) in public. We need more heroes for God now than ever before in the history of this great country.
This heartfelt sentiment is not just that, we need to see it as a wake-up call not just for America but worldwide.

I can see readers becoming endeared to Frank, Ann Lee and Daniel Collinsworth, Ray Castle, these being the main characters while the opposite being true for Esau and Lazarus Cheatwood. The former representing the good of this era and the latter two being the evilness and typical of the evil that was taking over society's standards at that time and one that has only continued and gained more footing and influence in this modern age and becoming the norm.

Despite the evilness and the deceptiveness of Esau and Lazarus and the nefarious scheme that would adversely affect the Collinsworths, I found their antics rather comical! Not sure if this was intentional on Hennigan's part but they reminded me of two bumbling wanna be thieves who believe they will hit the jackpot from their efforts far and above anyone else in the past and who will use the War to further their cause including the disappearance of Frank Collinsworth.

But this story is not just about these two characters. Running alongside and with this plot arc is the effects on the Collinsworth family as they attempt to deal with the disappearance of Frank, notably how Daniel deals with his father's absence. It is here that Hennigan interweaves the theme about the Homecoming Tree, being the man of the house in the absence of his father, about honour, respect and sacrifice. It is also about Ray finding out who he is, why he has been transported back in time, and mentally and spiritually fighting the Shadowman (his alter ego being and a link to who he used to be, one who was corrupt, selfish, deceptive and destructive who has lost all respect for himself, his wife, his son and his business) and one whom God has sent back to this era for him to realise what being an honourable man is, father and businessman is and then to chose which man he will be in the future.

It is also about how a country prepares and reacts to their inevitable entry into a war they were reluctant to enter but whose hand was forced when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

All these elements intersect to make for one intriguing and engaging story that pulls on you on all levels.

You want to see how Daniel copes with his father's absence, does he give up hope that his father is alive, does he live up to his father's heritage and legacy to become the man of the house, does he allow himself to go through this coming of age tradition by chopping down the tree planted by his father at his birth and it to become their Christmas tree. It is here that this tradition takes on a deeper and more significant meaning and a symbol of hope for his father's return for Christmas.

You want to see if Ray/Roy finds out who he is, does he overcome the Shadowman, does he learn the lesson that God has set for him by returning him to this era, does he choose the man he wants to be from what he has learnt from living in 1941 and suffer or benefit from the consequences of this decision? Does he learn about family, love, integrity and loyalty?

You want to see if Esau Cheatwood succeeds in deceiving the Collinsworth family and achieving the rewards of his nefarious scheme. You want to see if justice will prevail even in this innocent era before a society-changing war that will see life take on a path of no return. Will the Collinsworth family stand up to the Cheatwoods and defend their family values and their faith?

You want to see if Roy is the man you hope he chooses to be when God returns him to the present time. Will his son's prayer to restore him have been answered? Who really is Mike in the future and Mickey of 1941?

Once all these questions are established by the second half of this novel, you cannot give up reading, you have to see this novel through to the end. And it is very rewarding and satisfying. All the loose ends, plot arcs are tied up very well, and there are some plot twists towards the end as Hennigan skillfully does this. It is a great ending. It resulted in me having tears of joy, of victory over evilness, of who God is, how all things work together for the good of those who love God; for those who are called according to His purpose.

Hennigan provides the headlines of the era covering what was newsworthy in the various areas of life in 1941 at the beginning of each chapter. I could relate to some of it as these were part of my upbringing, even 20 years or more later. I especially loved the inclusion of the song, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" by the Andrew Sisters. My mother had this song on a special Reader's Digest compilation collection and I was hooked as a teenager when she bought this collection. I still love this song, an iconic song of WWII! These headlines not provide more of the background of the current history of the era but add credibility and a realistic quality to this era. Great insights into how life was then. I loved Hennigan's inclusion of other background information on some of the War events that he describes in the novel. Some poetic licence has been added for the story. It would enhance the enjoyment for the reader to read all of these appendices that contain the information regarding the history of Shreveport (in the section called Sources), Afterword which contains details of the inaugural play of The Homecoming Tree, list of facts about life in 1941, research on the town of Shreveport's role in the War effort. 

This is a great novel and one I will fondly look back on. It would be worthwhile re-reading this again. Hennigan shows a great passion for the supernatural acts of God, the Gospel of Christ and not comprising our faith or anything relating to God.

Hennigan is now an author to follow and support. 

Highly Recommended.

The three ratings below are based on my discernment:

World Building: 5/5

Characters: 5/5

Story: 5/5

The two classifications below are based on the booklet, A Spiritual System for Rating Books by David Bergsland:

Spiritual Level: 4/5

Enemy Spiritual Level: 3/5

Overall Rating: 4.4/5

To buy or preview this novel, click on the BUY/PREVIEW icon below: