Karon's Mitford novel series rises piously upward, onward

On Books

May 19, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Jan Karon has written her seventh Mitford novel, In This Mountain (Viking, 382 pages, $24.95). This is very good news to millions of devoted fans, who, among other celebrations of her work, again drove the sixth in the series, A Common Life, to the top of best-seller lists.

Though ever curious about vast successes in publishing, I had never read a Mitford book or any of Karon's other works, mainly children's fiction. I made up for that omission last week.

In This Mountain begins with Father Tim Kavanagh at war with moles in the rectory lawn, which he gardens despite having retired four years earlier as rector of Lord's Chapel, the Episcopal parish in the hill-country village of Mitford, N.C., and moved with his wife, Cynthia, to a house of their own nearby.

Cynthia is demanding he catch the moles -- they may be voles -- humanely and exile them far out into the country. Cynthia says "I love you bunches" and other expressions of indubitable affection. They married late in life. She is a nationally celebrated children's book author and illustrator.

Father Tim, as he is known almost universally, is 69 and has diabetes, which he controls with two insulin injections a day. He has been preaching and pastoring as a fill-in and is planning a year's missionary commitment called Our Own Backyard, in the wilds of Appalachian Tennessee. His boss, friend and old seminary mate, Bishop Stuart Cullen, seeks his help in raising funds to build a cathedral of native logs before Cullen must retire at 72, in 11 months.

In Mitford, men go to the Grill -- markedly not a bar; the only people ever to drink alcohol seem now to have recovered from the curse, with the help of prayer. Women go to the Tea Shop. Never the twain meet.

The book is written in episodic passages, typographically separated, some no more than a paragraph, some several pages long. Each is sort of an adventure, people interacting dramatically, in a sexless and otherwise insulated intimacy. Effective, energetic craftsmanship.

Many end in a point of suspense, driving the book forward. Others reveal endearing human quirks. Will the Grill make gizzards a Tuesday special? Will Father Tim change barbers? The local bookstore is called Happy Endings, and indeed fulfills its signal promise. The village doctor, Hoppy Harper, "is inordinately fond of green jellybeans."

God in the attic

Everybody just loves the former jewel thief who years ago had hidden in the attic of Lord's Chapel and found God by eavesdropping on services -- then confessed to the congregation and turned himself in for an eight-year term in prison. Sprung, he returns to town, full of faith and goodness.

Much of the 380 pages of the book is in dialogue. Lots of that is vernacular, colloquial. A second prevalent characteristic of the book is that prayer is present -- in every moment, heart and mind except those still bereft of faith. Ultimately almost all -- perhaps entirely all -- of those doubters come to Christ.

Can prayer be overdone? Midway in the summer's drought, there's a violent rainstorm. Local farm folk pick corn and other comestibles by torchlight into the wee hours of the morning, yet:

"This devastation caused the Simmons family to worry whether their prayers for rain had been too fervent. Neese told his wife, Vada, that he would make a point of discussing it with their preacher to see whether any of the blame for crop loss might, in fact, lie squarely on the shoulders of the Simmonses.

"'Hush an' go to sleep,' she said, patting his hand. 'Th' Lord knows what He's doin'.

"'Will you ride up with me t'morrow?' he asked.

"'If I'm not too give out,' she said."

In In This Mountain, people converse in capitalized pronouns and quaint idioms.

In image and language, the text can make the frilliest greeting card seem austere: "For three days in mid-February, Lady Spring cajoled our wintry spirits with zephyrs so balmy that we found ourselves utterly deceived. How quickly we forget, year to year, the heart-wrenching extent to which this frivolous and unrepentant lady betrays us."

Blessed rains

The zephyrs were followed by ice storms in March, snow in April, bitter winds on May Day and the worst drought in memory for the rest of the season. Well, at least until blessed rains gentle the drama to a close.

As the novel moves along, Father Tim neglects his meds and exercise, goes into a diabetic coma while driving, near-mortally injuring the Baptist minister and killing his dog, Sparky. Redemption is forthcoming. A great deal of prayer is shared. Father Tim decides to take doctor's orders seriously.

At the end, all are at peace with themselves and their Maker. Humble wisdom ultimately comes even to Edith Mallory, the "witch on a broom" -- the cruelest cut earned by anyone or anything in the entire 380 pages -- a selfish, egregiously rich, widow woman with the arrogant, 8,000-square-foot house on the top of the hill.

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