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Amahl and the Night Visitors (1986)

Written by Gian Carlo Menotti

Illustrated by Michele Lemieux

William Morrow and Company

This book has great resonance. I was only somewhat familiar with the story when I began reading, and knew that it was based on the opera of the same name, from 1951.

This is the story of the Nativity, but one in which the baby Jesus and his parents do not make an appearance. The central character is Amahl, a young boy who lives with his mother. We first see him playing his pipe as the stars begin to appear in the night sky. He is clearly a dreamer.

There is one star in particular which captures young Amahl's attention. It burns more brightly than the others, and he cannot take his eyes off of it. Even when his mother scolds him, he cannot tear himself away.

"Oh Mother, you should go out and see! There's never been such a sky! Hanging over our roof there is a star as large as a window. The star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire!"

Amahl's mother sighed. "Oh, Amahl," she said wearily, "When will you stop telling lies? All day long you wander about in a dream. Here we are with nothing to eat, not a stick of wood on the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug, and all you do is worry your mother with fairy tales..."

Yes, indeed. At that moment, Amahl is one with Jack the Giant Killer. He is one with Dorothy and with Alice and with every dreamer of any fairy tale ever told or written. The Star of Bethlehem is not merely a Sign from God, it is an icon of other adventures and romance.

That night, as Amahl lays sleeping, the adventure comes to his front door.

First, there is only singing:

From far away we come and farther we must go.
How far, how far, my crystal star?
Cold as the sands by the silent sea.
Frozen the incense in our frozen hands.
Heavy the gold.

When his mother opens the door, still disbelieving her son and his wild stories, she gasps in shock and amazement. There stand the three kings, dressed as aliens from a faraway land. They've come following the Star, and wish to spend the night with Amahl and his dumbfounded mother.

And when they eventually leave, it is with Amahl - who leaves his home for the first time. "...as he piped, the caravan moved onward."

This review was linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

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