I received a copy of Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen for review from Atticus Books. I read it during the recent Readathon.

About the Book:

Nazareth North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen (cover)1983, the middle of North Dakota: a child is born. Well, actually, more like a child is given, or perhaps abandoned. In the Motel de Love No. 3, an infant boy is left outside the room in which Roxy and her no-good husband, Dill, are staying. And so begins a clever, contemporary version of the story of the Messiah.

From “The Annunciation” to “The Temptation on the Mount,” Nazareth, North Dakota follows this modern Messiah through three decades of his life. It’s peopled with all kinds of characters: corrupt sheriffs, hardworking townspeople, revival preachers, mysterious old men, meddlesome bikers…even an escaped circus elephant. Never obvious and never dull, Nazareth, North Dakota is an exciting ride, regardless of how well you know the stories on which it’s based.

My Thoughts:

I think it takes a lot of skill to rewrite a famous story well, retaining enough elements to keep the story familiar while burying recognizable threads to such a degree that the end product feels fresh and creative. Tommy Zurhellen has that skill. I have a feeling Nazareth, North Dakota reads differently depending on your knowledge of the stories from which it draws. My general familiarity certainly led to some moments of recognition, but my lack of specific knowledge led, I’m sure, to my missing that added layer at times. But what’s so cool about Nazareth, North Dakota is that it holds up as a good story even without that extra layer. While it’s based on the story of the Messiah, it’s by no means dependent on it.

Nazareth, North Dakota is only just over 200 pages long, yet Zurhellen manages to introduce and flesh out a surprising number of characters. It doesn’t take him long to bring a character to life, and he deftly dispatches each new creation into its appointed place within the story’s tangled web. I loved Roxy, proud and fierce; I also loved her mother, Annie, and her friend Joe. Severo gave me the creeps. Ole Simonson intrigued me. They were all so vividly alive.

There is a really fascinating interview with Tommy Zurhellen on the Atticus Books website that I’d recommend if Nazareth, North Dakota sounds at all interesting to you. Here’s a taste, part of Zurhellen’s explanation of how his novel differs from “more straightforward adaptations:”

“One thing I definitely didn’t want to do while writing this book is simply ‘update’ the New Testament into another religious allegory. I’m a fiction writer, and for me the fun of fiction is creating characters you care about, and then seeing where they take you. There’s a freedom involved there, and if you don’t feel like you have that freedom to explore, well, you might as well be completing a paint-by-numbers coloring book.”

If you enjoy clever adaptations, stories told from multiple angles, or anything just a little bit crazy, I think you’ll like Nazareth, North Dakota!

Those are my thoughts. Check out Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen on GoodReads or LibraryThing!

Join the Conversation


  1. I really like the sound of this book! I think it’s refreshing to hear that the author is so adept at character creation and scene setting, and would love the chance to read this book at some point. Thanks for the great review. I am adding this to my wish list!

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I was really impressed, expecting a sort of transparent allegory and instead finding a very interesting and real story.

  2. I think it takes a very talented author to be able to pull off a story like this one without offending or just rehashing the source material. Sounds like the characters were really fleshed out and were able to stand on their own. I’m very interested in this one now. Love your review!

    1. Thanks! I’m very interested to see what the author does next, as I think he has a lot of potential (and a great imagination!).

  3. I am so excited about this one. I love reading books that either look at a similar time and period or are a new take on an old story. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. This book sounds fascinating. It’s certainly a difficult story to write a modern version of and I think the author is brave taking such a risk. I’m very interested in reading it to see what the author does with his “Messiah”. Thank you for writing an awesome review nad telling us about this intriguing book!

    1. Yes, Amy, it’s definitely difficult to rewrite such well-known stories and have the end result be interesting and fresh. I was very pleasantly surprised when I read Nazareth, North Dakota!

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