Set in the eponymous (and fictional) tiny town of Mitford, North Carolina, the nine novels, the first of which was published in 1994, follow the local Episcopal rector, Father Timothy Kavanagh, as he tends his flock. He visits the sick, feeds the homeless, and prays with the downtrodden (and the eccentric). Along the way, Father Tim, a lifelong bachelor, loses his heart to his neighbor, the lovely Cynthia Coppersmith, who lives just across the way from him on Wisteria Lane. (Yes, there's a Wisteria Lane in "Desperate Housewives," too, but Mitford claimed one first.) Cynthia has achieved fame and (small) fortune writing and illustrating prize-winning picture books about her cat Violet. She boasts long legs and deep blue eyes, and after several hundred pages and several books, Tim, at age 62, comes to his senses and proposes to her. Father Tim also takes in a few children, delves into his own unresolved issues with his long-dead father, develops diabetes, and reads a lot of poetry. Eventually, he retires. In "Light From Heaven," Father Tim's bishop asks him to spend a year resurrecting a tiny country parish that hasn't had an active congregation for years. Through the births, deaths, and other events in the life of the town, Father Tim dispenses his gentle wisdom.
Along with the popular "Left Behind" novels, it was Karon's Mitford that proved Christian fiction can be a publishing phenonmenon--a feat accomplished, as Sam Hodges recently pointed out in The Charlotte Observer, without ever gaining the attention of the New York Times Book Review or Oprah Winfrey. So far the novels have sold more than 20 million copies. And though the plot lines and characters seem simple on the surface, they have changed lives, including my own.
I discovered the first two Mitford novels, "At Home in Mitford" and "A Light in the Attic," the summer after my junior year of college. I was killing time in a bookstore, waiting to meet a friend, and there they were, face out on the shelf. I grabbed them and was hooked. To tell the truth, I read them over and over in the following weeks, and found myself not only thrilled to trade my Manhattan environs for the sleepy small-town life of Mitford, but also deeply attracted to the way that faith saturated the lives of the quirky inhabitants of the town. Later, I read an interview with Jan Karon, where she explained, "I try to depict how our faith may be woven into our daily life, like brandy poured into coffee." It was that infusion of faith into the quotidian lives of ordinary people that drew me not only to Mitford, but to Christianity. Less than two years later, I was baptized.
Father Tim appears to be the novels' hero, but the central figure may actually be the community of Mitford itself--Karon has said she writes to give "to give readers an extended family." The Mitford novels take us to a place very different from our own hectic, atomized life: to a place where people are genuine neighbors to one another, where friends take the time to sit on their front porches and while away the evening in conversation, where pew-sitters in the same church manage to be involved in each other's daily lives without being too intrusive or nosy or gossipy.