Fictional communities

"Fictional communities" Continued...

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

Time is no friend in Berry's small town and no enemy in Karon's. Her Mitford avoids the problems of the interstate and the big-box stores, retaining its whimsical charm. Some of the farm folk in Port William, though, settle for what Jayber calls the "local airport," an old hotel "where are gathered those about to depart into the heavens." In Karon's nice world good people eventually find one another, fall in love, and work out their common lives through grace. In Berry's world the lonely child searches for meaning through hard work, good friends and love, faces anguish and loss, and finally death.

Both are good writers. They have different goals and attract different readers. Many Karon readers enjoy a world without profanity or cruelty, a world in which rapists, murderers, thieves, or other brutes are caught, killed, or converted. They expect what Victorian audiences expected, that Good will prevail over Evil by page 450. This is not the story line we find in Scripture: Cain lived on after murdering Abel, though marked by the sin. And the best Man of all, Christ, died on the cross, after forbidding Peter to attack the soldiers. Paul found blessedness in the suffering; his idea of living happily ever after is a reference to Heaven.

Readers who prefer writers like Berry expect a level of discomfort. He will not preach his sermon so explicitly as some of the gentle writers. He will not cite his scriptural references nor sanitize his language, though he rarely uses explicit sexuality or profanity. Some of his central characters have affairs and never repent. Like Karon, Berry loves woodlands and hills, but his farms are full of mud and manure, weeds and thistles as well as flowers. Her animals are domesticated; his are hound dogs and mules-fellow workers.

Berry also places the church at the center of his community, but his pastors are pitiful young seminary students without wisdom or life experience. When non-churchgoing Jack Beechum dies, the funeral arranged by his condescending, pretentious daughter reveals the superficiality of her mourning. The casket is as lavish as the daughter's elegant car; the undertaker makes up the corpse and dresses him in a suit and tie that are flat wrong for this weather-beaten old man who lived in overalls most of his life. The young preacher who never knew Old Jack prays a long evangelistic prayer in an embarrassing effort to convert the mourners, whom he also does not know.

When Paul told the Philippians to try chewing some tough meat, he meant something deeper than the feel-good theology of a satisfied people. Rather than baby's milk, too many Christians settle for cotton candy or angel food cake, when they should be seeking to understand suffering and God's mercy. Karon portrays a gentle life full of grace. Berry shows us the valley of the shadow of death.

-Nancy Tischler, Professor Emerita of English at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of studies of Scripture and literature, including the forthcoming Thematic Guide to Biblical Literature

Nancy M. Tischler
Nancy M. Tischler


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