Culture > Books

Books: I'd rather be in Mitford

Books | Portrait of a small town shows practical Christianity at work

Issue: "Bailing Out," June 14, 1997

I was stuck in a traffic jam the other day when I spotted a bumper sticker on a car in the next lane. It read, "I'd rather be in Mitford." I knew instantly that the driver was a kindred spirit. Mitford is the perfect hometown-small, friendly, and civilized. It is the kind of place that Warren Harding must have had in mind when he extolled the virtues of "normalcy." The fine folks there pursue their gentle passions for good Southern cooking, blooming gardens, great books, antique furniture, rich fellowship, happy families, and vibrant faith. It is indeed the place to be. Alas, contemplating the sundry virtues of this idyllic North Carolina village is a good news/bad news proposition. The bad news is that Mitford is just a figment of author Jan Karon's imagination. The good news is that she has once again brought that imagination to life with the fourth installment of her Mitford Years series. The new volume, Out to Canaan, is the best yet. Ms. Karon, who writes with an uncommon grace and an easy familiarity, is a natural storyteller. Like James Herriot or Miss Read, she is able to portray the extraordinary ordinariness of life with wry humor and genuine affection. Like John Buchan or G.K. Chesterton, she is able to forge a sense of rollicking adventure with just the right proportions of mystery and romance. Not surprisingly, she has developed a devoted following among book lovers over the past several years. Her previous novels, At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, and The High Green Hills, have all quietly made their way onto the national bestseller lists. They've even created a minor industry: There are Mitford posters, Mitford newsletters, recipe clubs, and gardening groups. And, of course, there are Mitford bumper stickers. In Out to Canaan, all the old familiar characters are back. There is Father Tim, the evangelical pastor of the local Episcopal church, Cynthia his lovely and artistic wife, and Dooley Barlowe the rough-hewn mountain boy they love as their own. The supporting cast includes Russell Jacks, Olivia Harper, Esther Cunningham, Miss Rose, Uncle Billy, Violet the literary cat, Barnabas the loveable dog the size of a Buick, and all the other dear eccentrics in town. But somehow Ms. Karon takes these characters-and every other aspect of her writing-to a whole new level. As she plunges them into the sundry vicissitudes of everyday life, she simultaneously portrays the practical worldview of Christianity in action. She affords us a glimpse of the sociology of the Kingdom-but without the stereotypical sugar-coatings or rose-colored glasses. This is not merely a light literary diversion as some might suppose. Instead, it is brilliant moral fiction of the caliber of Flannery O'Connor, Andrew Nelson Lytle, or Caroline Gordon. It is both a careful exercise in serious social criticism and a delightful refreshment for heart, mind, and soul. I really must concur: "I'd rather be in Mitford.

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