Books January 2002

The Land of Counterpane

Jan Karon lets her readers pull the covers over their heads
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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 Amazon.com'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.

No doubt the promise of such easy union with the divine is a large part of what has made Karon successful. But authentic or not, it strikes this Yankee Unitarian sensibility as Sunday-school religion: memorize a Bible verse and get a Jesus sticker. Indeed, the very fact that Karon wallows in sweetness and light may disqualify her books from being "Christian fiction." In the words of John Updike,

It is striking how dark ... the human condition appears ... in the fiction of Waugh and Spark and Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor. We scan them for a glimpse of mollifying holiness, and get instead a cruel drumming upon this world's emptiness. To be Christian in this day and age ... is to be unorthodox, and readers should look elsewhere for the consolations of conventional sentiment and the popular, necessary religion of optimism ... Is not Christian fiction ... a description of the bewilderment and panic, the sense of hollowness and futility, which afflicts those whose search for God is not successful? And are we not all, within the churches and temples or not, more searcher than finder in this regard?

W hat Kirkus Reviews in 1996 called Karon's "literary equivalent of comfort food" would seem to appeal primarily to middle-aged women who don't care to hear about sex or violence or to read any swear words, not even "damn." (Karon says that at the age of ten she got a whipping from her grandmother after she wrote a story containing "a word that Rhett Butler used.") At the Canadian Booksellers Association convention in June of 1999 Karon said that Mitford readers "are celebrating the sweet ordinariness of life in the face of the horror that's on every news channel and in every newspaper, and in the face of every women's magazine that instead of showing you how to bake a casserole tells you how to have a better orgasm." According to Newsweek, "[Karon] and her readers, she insists, are one and the same, a sort of cultural silent majority of good-hearted, God-fearing squares ignored by Hollywood and New York publishers."

Though Father Tim and Cynthia exchange "lingering" kisses while he luxuriates in her faint wisteria scent, they are chaste before marriage; he is boyishly nervous in anticipation of their pre-marital counseling.

Here he was in his bishop's office, seated next to his sweetheart, and only minutes away, they'd be talking about sex. He felt the blood surge to his head, coloring his face like a garden tomato ...
"Praying together affirms you as one flesh [the bishop said], and, among the endless benefits it bestows, it can greatly enhance your sexual communication ... As you seek to know what you can do for the other, you will surely receive your own inexpressible delight ... To put it simply, making love confirms your spiritual relationship, and your spiritual relationship will deepen your lovemaking. It all moves in a wondrous circle."

Well, that wasn't too bad. And that's all there is.

"Father Tim is an ordinary human being, a decent human being," Karon told The Orlando Sentinel in 1999. "And you know there aren't that many clergymen like him in novels anymore. Ever since Elmer Gantry polluted the waters ... they're all running off with the choir director or doing something worse." (In A New Song the choir director runs off with the organist.) Father Tim probably reminds a lot of Mitford fans of their own fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. He drives himself in his work, facing an unending parade of spiritual needs and practical demands: spelling a woman who lives with her senile mother, taking livermush (a local delicacy) to his bedridden sexton, baking a ham for a parish wedding, tending to the leaks in Miss Sadie's roof. He has diabetes, and must discipline himself to jog and watch his diet. He seethes inwardly at Emma Garrett's bossy interference. His difficulty in making a commitment to Cynthia and his clumsy letter-writing while she is away create some rocky patches in their romance. He approaches retirement with fear and denial. He worries about his thinning hair.

Newsweek has called Karon "a marketing wizard" who is "every bit as sincere as she is slick." She personally telephoned and visited bookstores to get her early books rolling. Her bi-annual newsletter, More From Mitford, available free to subscribers either by mail or on the Internet (www.penguin putnam.com/mitford), combines spiritual advice, answers to readers' questions, and excerpts from fan letters with tour schedules and teasers from forthcoming books. Karon says that as a little girl she dreamed of being a preacher before she dreamed of being a writer. She has achieved both, and her fans have the quality of disciples: describing one appearance by the author, Newsweek said, "When members of the ... audience talked about Karon, they sounded like they were describing a wise friend who had helped them through a crisis." They write things like "You've helped recharge my inner battery." "I've given your books to many of my friends in hope that their lives and their faith can be renewed as mine have been." "I feel the embrace of heaven through your books." "We feel uplifted, other-oriented, and involved ... You teach us how to live!"

Karon's own life—or what little she is willing to reveal about it—is fairly inspirational too. Her father left home when she was three, and she was raised by her grandparents. She dropped out of school after eighth grade; by the age of eighteen she had a baby daughter, but her marriage was over. She went to work as a receptionist in an ad agency, and when she left advertising in order to write, in 1988, she was an agency vice-president. Should she decide to write an autobiography, it would no doubt rival her previous books in sales. She promises two more Mitford novels before the series ends: In This Mountain (2003) and Light From Heaven (2005). But Father Tim won't die.

Jan Karon has been compared to Miss Read (Dora Saint), James Herriot, Garrison Keillor, and even (I'm pained to report) Anthony Trollope. But she lacks Saint's deliciously British irony, Herriot's vividness, Keillor's art, and Trollope's depth. (The only pearls one is likely to encounter in her pages are the quotations, sprinkled throughout, from eminent theologians and other thinkers and writers; a similar collection makes up Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes, published in September.) The Mitford books are short on wit, poetry, and insight, long on comfort, encouragement, and a dependable, well-timed leavening of humor. They seem to me like children's books for adults.

Cute (and mysteriously mutable) maps of Mitford appear at the front of the books, evoking old children's board games: Uncle Wiggily, Enchanted Forest, Park and Shop. Every chapter opens with a simple line drawing of one or more characters. Father Tim perennially finds himself in what used to be called scrapes: Trying to bathe Barnabas before company comes, he's hog-tied by the dog's leash. He pursues Violet up onto Cynthia's roof and down through her coal chute. Picnicking, he and Cynthia encounter a (fortunately benign) bull. He leaps from a moving car to escape Edith Mallory, Mitford's Cruella DeVille, whose hand is on his thigh. He and Cynthia get lost in a cave, and although the experience is painted as a spiritual turning point ("God was fully in control—firmly and finally and awfully—and he knew it for the first time in his heart, instead of in his head"), I could think only of Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe. Father Tim plays detective in Hardy Boys fashion—finding stolen gems in a columbarium urn, and flying with Omer Cunningham, the mayor's barnstorming brother-in-law, on an aerial reconnaissance of Edith Mallory's estate. Treasures turn up in Fernbank's attic, and Miss Sadie secretly bequeaths a fortune to Dooley Barlowe. Father Tim's God is a little like the mother rabbit in Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. Is it significant that Karon has a sign outside her cottage in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, that reads PETER RABBIT SLEPT HERE?

True, there are some dark doings in Mitford: child abuse and neglect, alcoholism, violent rages. Pauline Barlowe, Dooley's mother, is set afire by her domestic partner. A foul band of drug dealers kidnaps Barnabas. A slovenly woman claiming to be Father Tim's cousin from Ireland writes pornography in the rectory guest room. But these events rest uneasily (sometimes incongruously) on a foundation of softball games, parish teas, and rummage sales. Resolutions are sometimes glib or even offstage, in a manner befitting a world where bits of Scripture are genuinely antidotal.

Under the covers is the safest, coziest place a child can be—and Mitford offers that kind of place. Robert Louis Stevenson's poem made of the bed both a happy playground for the imagination and a contained and orderly world.

[I] sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain

The pleasant Land of Counterpane.
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