The story follows a donkey, named Bethlehem, who was born on the same night and in the same stable as Jesus and who never forgets that it was a special night, symbolized by the mysterious golden light that shines from the star that guided the Magi.
After the Nativity the donkey also accompanies his mother when she carries the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. When the family returns to Israel, he goes to work in the Temple garden. We continue to follow him as he passes from owner to owner in events not directly related to the life of Jesus and as he continues to ponder the events in his life and especially the meaning of the golden light he has witnessed.
All of the art in the book is inspired by various paintings from Pieter Brugel the Elder and is rich in detail and color. A nice touch is that various events in the life of Jesus are occurring in the distant background during these other scenes in the life of Bethlehem the donkey: the child Jesus in the Temple, the baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, the feast at Cana, Jesus walking on water, blessing the children, the raising of Lazarus, the Sermon on the Mount, etc. A list of these appearances is in the back of the book, with thumbnails to highlight Jesus. Also, this list explains which Brugel painting inspired each of Speirs' paintings.
The story is recursive: each incident adds another item to the list that the donkey remembers and ponders which grows longer and longer. This is from near the end:
As he made his way into the city, Bethlehem thought of
the donkeys seeking comfort in one another,
the woodcutters struggling to make a living,
the village children looking for fun,
the farmer helping him find strength,
the peasants hoping for a bountiful future,
the merchants pursuing riches,
the vagabonds entertaining the villagers,
the students seeking knowledge,
and his family searching for safety...
The repetition can get bit tedious, not only for me but even for my almost 3 year old; mostly because there are so many items in the list by the end. At the same time, it works quite well as a subtle reminder of the universality of salvation.
Bethlehem later reenters the Gospel narrative when he carries Christ into Jerusalem, thinking as he does so that there is something familiar and special about this man. He stands outside in the street during the Last Supper, unaware of the momentous event happening above him.
The crucifixion is not really dealt with directly in the story. The donkey is only aware of an earthquake and a great disturbance as angels challenge the forces of evil in a painting inspired by Brugel's "The Fall of the Rebel Angels". A small circle with three crosses hangs in the background almost lost in the tumult and confusion. I think it rather works, though. I like the oblique approach that allows the adult reader to mediate for the child the details of Christ's passion and death since the crucifixion itself can be rather strong material for very young children.
The book ends as Bethlehem meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden and recognizes him and finally enters into his rest and peace:
The donkey's sadness, pain, and weariness left him. With joy, Bethlehem went to Him and His promise of peace, goodwill, and a new beginning for all.
I really appreciated the fine art aspects of the book. The detail-rich paintings are fascinating to our toddler, who loves to point at and ask questions about various figures in the scenes. Though I'm not sure she understands the more hidden meanings just now, as she grows she will be able to appreciate other layers.
Older children will be able to understand more about the Biblical themes, to hunt for the scenes from the life of Jesus, and to connect their reading of this book with a study of Brugel's paintings.
Although this book is aimed at 4-8 year-olds, it will appeal to all ages simply because of the beauty of the art and the simplicity of the story.