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Nazareth, North Dakota

What if the Messiah hadn’t been born yet? What if we never had Jesus? Or, what if he had been born in an insignificant town in North Dakota? Well, history would certainly be different, and Nazareth, North Dakota tells us how it may have happened in modern times. Tommy Zurhellen weaves a story of biblical intrigue, giving an age old story a new spin. Zurhellen makes it truly easy to step into a foreign world, but a world that has been known since childhood by many.

What if the Messiah hadn’t been born yet? What if we never had Jesus? Or, what if he had been born in an insignificant town in North Dakota? Well, history would certainly be different, and Nazareth, North Dakota tells us how it may have happened in modern times. Tommy Zurhellen weaves a story of biblical intrigue, giving an age old story a new spin. Zurhellen makes it truly easy to step into a foreign world, but a world that has been known since childhood by many.

Sam, the future Messiah, is abandoned by his real mother and is raised by Roxy who cannot bear children—in a sense, a virgin birth. In a modern world, where a woman being pregnant is not a life or death situation, Zurhellen weaves in the shame and disgrace of a Mary-type figure by having Roxy (the adoptive mother of Sam/Messiah) be an accomplice in a murder. She runs from the law and makes it all the way to Cairo, Illinois from somewhere in North Dakota. Here in a small town, she meets Joe. Joe isn’t her normal type, but she starts falling in love with him. The problem is she hasn’t told him about her sordid past yet, but, luckily, Joe starts piecing information together. He finds out that the only person who had been looking for her is now dead, and they both happily move back to Nazareth, North Dakota along with their children.

As the story goes along, we don’t learn much about Sam except a few instances that parallel occurrences within the Bible. Sam, instead of spending all day talking with Rabbis, debates with an ethics professor at a university in a neighboring town. He also is baptized in a muddy river by his preacher cousin, and at his baptism the supernatural occurs, potentially symbolizing his divinity. The story seems to favor the views of Roxy, Sam’s cousin, and the sheriffs of the town over Sam himself.

Zurhellen is an artist with his words; the internal and external dialogue is simply outstanding. The dialogue truly allows you to enter into the world of the characters. The opening monologue, written from the perspective of the devil, works as an effective example” “I ain’t no storyteller; I’ll leave the tale to folks who want to tell it. Only thing I want is revenge. In the old days, they used to call me Accuser or Adversary.” The opening chapter hooked me so fully, that I was not able to set the book down until I had finished it.

Structurally, the book is framed by the devil talking to the reader, telling him or her that this is the real deal, that he is risking it all, and that he isn’t going to be easy on the Messiah. Next we start moving into the story of Roxy and how the Messiah grew up. We never get a direct view into the Messiah’s head, which could be symbolic of how we have no direct word in the Bible from the Messiah. We only have the recollections of those around him. I believe that this indirect way of introducing Sam almost makes him more aloof and foreign to the reader, bringing into the forefront his divinity.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, although I’m not sure everyone will get all of the references to the Bible that are within this book. Some of these references are worked in so well that they are barely visible. I’ve had to sit and reflect on many aspects of the book in order to realize how masterfully the parallels were woven in. Considering that this is one of the world’s most well-known stories, Zurhellen makes it completely his own. This is the kind of book that will sit at the forefront of your mind for days as you analyze all the intricacies and subliminal messages. Pick up this book if you want to think in new ways, if you want to find a book that challenges you, and if you want to grow as a reader or writer.

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