Books January 2002

The Land of Counterpane

Jan Karon lets her readers pull the covers over their heads

Mitford, North Carolina (pop. 1,000), nestled in a lush valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a turn-of-the-century creekside town where the air sparkles and flowers abound. Its residents are mostly decent, neighborly types whose lives are framed by the beauty and weather of the changing seasons and the recurrence of annual events. They care for one another, have little to do with the outside world, and resist change. Looking down from a hill on the town he loves, Father Timothy Kavanagh, the rector of Mitford's Episcopal Church, sees "a wide panorama of rich Flemish colors under a perfectly blue and cloudless sky," with ploughed farmland "like velveteen scraps on a quilt, feather-stitched with hedgerows." He calls it the Land of Counterpane.

Father Tim and his enviable town are responsible for the astonishing success of Jan Karon, a sixty-four-year-old former advertising executive whose six books about Mitford—At Home in Mitford (1994), A Light in the Window (1995), These High, Green Hills (1996), Out to Canaan (1997), A New Song (1999), and A Common Life: The Wedding Story (2001)—now total eight million copies in print. A Common Life topped's best-seller list for two weeks before publication day and entered The Wall Street Journal's at No. 1. A New Song passed Monica's Story to reach No. 1 on Amazon's list in the spring of 1999. The following summer Hallmark issued a line of greeting cards, party goods, and gift items based on Mitford scenes and buildings. As many as 1,400 readers have turned out to see Karon in such diverse places as Prairie Village, Kansas; Lynchburg, Virginia; Sewickley, Pennsylvania; and Madison, Connecticut, and fans had already sent her some 12,000 pieces of mail by the time A New Song appeared. Karon's success is astonishing in part because her books are considered Christian fiction—a category that, according to Publishers Weekly, "barely existed 20 years ago"; Viking Penguin took the series over from Lion Publishing, a small religious house, in 1996. Karon told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1999, "We have uncovered a huge, hungry audience for books that don't amputate the spiritual from the rest of life."

Rarely have these books been reviewed by a major newspaper; their initial success derived from "hand-selling" in independent bookstores (At Home in Mitford was thrice nominated for an ABBY Award by the American Booksellers Association), word of mouth, and cagey marketing and promotion by Karon and her publishers. (And, perhaps, from a felicitous confusion: In the spring of 1997 Oprah Winfrey chose The Rapture of Canaan, by Sheri Reynolds, for her book club. Out to Canaan followed Reynolds's book up the charts. When asked by the Sacramento Bee if there was a connection, Karon replied, "I really don't know. But it is rather odd that the name of an ancient biblical site is on the title of two books in 1997, don't you think?") In the end the books have sold themselves.

Father Tim is a conscientious and loving sexagenarian workaholic who tends his garden as he tends his flock, and prays every morning, "Father, make me a blessing to someone today." His love interest is Cynthia Coppersmith, an attractive and successful children's book author in her middle fifties who lives next door with her white cat, Violet. Their courtship and marriage is a dominant theme in the series. The rector informally adopts Dooley Barlowe, a sullen, rough-spoken boy from a broken home, and helps him to become a well-educated and affectionate teenager. Father Tim is himself adopted—in the opening chapter of the series—by Barnabas, a large black dog who jumps and licks with abandon until he hears a quotation from Scripture. Around this core moves a host of colorful constants, including the garrulous Emma Garrett, Father Tim's part-time secretary; Sadie Baxter, the mistress of Fernbank, one of Mitford's grand houses, and a generous benefactor with a tragic history; and the schizophrenic Miss Rose and her long-suffering husband, Uncle Billy, whose specialty is jokes of the Reader's Digest variety. Karon's strong suit is pacing: every chapter is composed of short takes that end with a neat summing up or a bit of wry humor—perfect for the modern attention span, and saving her the trouble of writing transitions. Her characters are, like those of a good sit-com, superficial but memorable, and her snappy dialogue is often smile-out-loud funny.

To visit Mitford is to enter a cleaner, simpler life, without fast-food restaurants, video arcades, or even traffic. The shopkeepers on Main Street maintain garden plots between their quaint enterprises: the Happy Endings Bookstore, the Sweet Stuff Bakery, the Collar Button (menswear), The Local (groceries and produce). Regulars gather for breakfast and lunch at the Main Street Grill, where town doings more than suffice for conversation. Mayor Esther Cunningham discourages tourism, saying that Mitford "would simply like to be the pause that refreshes." Mitford's women bake cakes, tote casseroles, and arrange flowers. Mitford's men are hardworking, respectful toward their women, and upright. At a fundraising festival Mitford's four clergymen push peanuts down Main Street with their noses, and Mayor Cunningham kisses a pig. People will drop what they're doing and race in their cars to see a sunset. But most important, Mitford is a place where God is alive and well, and keeps a finger on every pulse.

"In my books I try to depict not a glorious faith with celestial fireworks, but a daily faith, a routine faith, a seven-days-a-week faith," Karon has said. Prayer suffuses the lives of Father Tim and his parishioners, and nothing is too small to ask God for, whether it be help with a recalcitrant dog or keeping a feverish boy "in bed and out of mischief." When it comes to something big, a prayer chain can be galvanized with a phone call. Quotations from Scripture pepper everyday speech ("Philippians four-thirteen, for Pete's sake") as well as reining in Barnabas. Grace cannot be earned and isn't about deserving in any case: it's free. Salvation can come from turning one's life over to Jesus Christ with a simple prayer. "It isn't a test you have to pass," Father Tim tells a stranger he finds kneeling in the empty church. "It doesn't require discipline and intelligence ... not even strength and perseverance. It only requires faith." In a tidy two-for-one the rector saves both the stranger—a traveling businessman—and a jewel thief who is listening from his hiding place in the church attic.

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