The first is that I am familiar with North Dakota, having grown up in neighboring Montana.
The second is that the novel is a contemporary retelling of the birth and life of Jesus (up to his baptism).
Part of the fun is guessing who the characters in the novel represent in the Bible. There is a list at the end, but readers are advised to read the novel first before checking out who's who. I obeyed. It was more fun that way.
It is not a "Christian" book. What I mean by that is that the author, Tommy Zurhellen, does not want to get you "saved" or to imprint evangelical morality upon his readers. He is telling a story of characters that have a loose connection with their biblical counterparts.
At one point some local preachers are discussing Jan (John the Baptist):
"Point is, this Jan is a rabble-rouser, pure and simple."The descriptions ring true. We all know the preacher who has "carried the hangdog look of a man who'd spent a life telling people what they didn't want to hear."
"This is North Dakota," the man replied with a chuckle. "All we got is rabble."
Ben Runkle had been listening. "Excuse me," he said, rising slowly from his seat, leaning his arms on the pew in front of him. "If I'm not mistaken, Elijah was a rabble-rouser. Jonah, too." He licked his dry lips and drew a long breath. He carried the hangdog look of a man who'd spent a life telling people what they didn't want to hear. "But what if it's true? What if this Brother Jan is truly a prophet, sent by God?"
Pastor White laughed. "You can't be serious."
"Brothers, we all say we're men of god. We say our job is to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah on earth. But what if the Messiah did come from a little town in North Dakota? Would we even know it?"
"Trust me, reverend," Yarbrough said. "Nothing good ever came out of Nazareth."
The framework is the biblical legend. The real story involves the characters themselves. It is a life of cigarettes and alcohol, of crooked sheriffs and heavy metal. It is the life of folks getting by in North Dakota with all the quirkiness, disappointments, and moments of grace that small town life offers and withholds.
Nazareth, North Dakota is a fun, first novel. Read an interview about the book with the author here. I look forward to the sequel.