I first encountered Jan Karon in the pages of Victoria magazine some years ago. Victoria chooses a “Writer-in-residence” whose work they showcase in each issue throughout the year, and Jan was featured one year. I loved her warmth and hominess and clear faith depicted — in fact, I was surprised and pleased that a secular magazine would feature a writer whose faith was integral to her stories. I believe it was there I also first heard of and then sought out Mitford.
At Home in Mitford is the story of Father Tim Cavanaugh, a nearly 60 year old single Episcopal priest ministering in a fictional small town in NC which is replete with colorful and sometimes eccentric characters. He is so busy with his parish that he hasn’t been on a vacation in years and can’t seem to get away for more than a day or two, and the strain is starting to show.
Then unexpectedly a dog “as big as a Buick” comes bounding into his life, an untamed, neglected boy comes into his care, and a new enchanting neighbor “pops through the hedge” to visit. The discovery of stolen jewels weighs heavily on him, he’s asked to bear burdens and secrets of his people, and a condition of his own begins to manifest itself.
I strongly disagree with this assessment that Karon “satirizes Father Tim and the citizens of Mitford.” I see no satire here at all but rather realism, warmth, humor, and pathos. The characters are clearly and lovingly drawn with flaws, quirks, and endearing features intertwined realistically. As I mentioned earlier, there is a warmth, a hominess, a coziness in Karon’s stories. Here is one example when Father Tim goes to the home of good friends for dinner:
In the center of the kitchen was a large pine table, bleached by age, with benches on either side. A mason jar of early wildflowers sat in the center, along with a deep-dish apple pie, fresh from the oven. A dazzling beam of light fell through the windows that looked out to the stables.
Their guest stood transfixed. “A foretaste of heaven!” he said, feeling an instant freshness of spirit.
And then follows gently irony as he muses on the fact that everything is calm and peaceful and nothing dramatic or surprising happens there just before he’s blindsided by major news (good news this time.)
I enjoyed as well the beginnings of a “older” romance later in the book. It’s nice to see love stories aren’t just for the young. 🙂
Karon also weaves quotes from various authors, poets, and preachers throughout the book. She must be widely read but does not come across as pretentious at all.
I don’t know if her books would be classified as Christian fiction: I don’t think so. But faith is integral to the story. I had not know much about Episcopalianism before reading this book and I don’t know all the fine points of their beliefs, but the gospel is quite clearly and naturally presented.
Later books were a bit too ecumenical for me, but I could read them as a continuing part of the story, acknowledging but not agreeing with some of the happenings. The one thing that particularly bugged me was that many characters have a tendency to say “Good Lord!” or “Oh Lord,” which I perceive as taking the Lord’s name in vain, using something holy and glorious as an empty epithet. It was often said that Father Tim used such phrases as a prayer, though.
I was surprised to learn recently that this book started out as a weekly newspaper column and was begun when Jan was nearly 50 (that gives me hope that there may be a story in me yet!)
When I first read the books however many years ago, I borrowed them from the library. This time I listened to the audiobook read by stage actor John McDonough. It took me a while to get into his style. He seemed a little ponderous at first, but in some parts he reminded me of a beloved pastor from my teen and college years, and once I got into the story I enjoyed his rendition very much. Mitford is not a place to rush through, but to sit down, relax, and take your time.
I thoroughly enjoyed this revisit. the only problem now is that I want to sit down and devour the rest of the books in the series. But I’ll look forward to delving into a few more of them next year.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)