Velma Still Cooks in Leeway
By Vinita Hampton Wright
Broadman andHolman, 294 pp.

Friendship Cake
By Lynne Hinton
Harper San Francisco, 212 pp.

By Jamie Langston Turner
Bethany House, 389 pp.

Home to Harmony
By Philip Gulley
Multnomah, 219 pp.

If you're a Mitford fan like me, you're dreading the day Jan Karon's seventhand purportedly last "Mitford" book rolls off the presses. I'm a sucker forthese novels of quaint-Christian-life-in-a-small-town. Think Lake Wobegon,only evangelical: We have a charming, insightful pastor and eccentric, lovablevillagers who collect in a coffee shop on Main Street to be neighborly andoccasionally nosy. At the end of every story is an easily digestible moral.The formula has made Karon a zillionaire and a heroine among publishers ofChristian fiction, who long to be taken seriously on The New York Times best-seller list.

Don't fear, Mitford fans. There's a surfeit ofsmall-town Christian novels. And some of them are actually pretty good.

Philip Gulley's "Home to Harmony" leads the pack. Gulley, a Quaker pastor,has earned a devoted following with his Hallmark-ish collections offeel-good "Front Porch Tales." Now he turns his hand to the small-townnovel. Harmony is Karon's Mitford, transplanted to the Midwest, and SamGardner, Harmony's favorite son, has come home to settle down. He pastorsthe Quaker flock in Harmony, finding life lessons in the dullest vestrymeetings. Winesburg, Ohio, it's not, but you'll be relieved when you get tothe end of "Home to Harmony" to find it's the first in a series.

Despite the violence, there is something appealing about Leeway's sense of community--perhaps that it feels like a real place with real problems, and is populated with real people who grapple honestly with forgiveness. SvenBirkerts wrote that "to read ... is to make a volitional statement, to casta vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any actof traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about theplace one has left."

These small town Christian novels are precisely about the places, or perhapsa time, we have left behind. When I've had a little too much Manhattan, Itake a brief stroll in Harmony, or Mitford. Jan Karon knows says she writes to give readers a Mitford of their very own. Most Christians, after all, don't live in Mitford. We live in New York, or Topeka, or San Mateo. Even those of us in small towns find life alittle anomic and atomizing at times. I am grateful for these novels, if alittle embarrassed that they sustain me.

The challenge for Christians, of course, is to find a way to create thosecommunities outside of fiction. If we Christians were doingthings right, I would head to my church, not to my bookshelf, when the grindof Manhattan gets to be too much.

The lessons in Gulley's tales ring true, without being saccharine: "There's a danger in thinking joy is a matter of location. If we can't find joy where we are, we probably won't find it anywhere." Or, after a seemingly magical quilt turned out to be just plain old cotton with an auspiciously-shaped coffee stain, "It troubled me that folks would drive three hundred miles to see Christ in a quilt, but wouldn't walk next door to see Him in their neighbor."

Two fictional South Carolina towns bloom in three novels by Bob JonesUniversity professor Jamie Langston Turner: Derby and Filbert. In her 1998novel, "Some Wildflowers in My Heart," Turner introducedreaders to Margaret Tuttle, an autodidact cafeteria worker who finds herselfmysteriously drawn to local church organist and all around goody-goody namedBirdie Freeman. "Wildflowers," which made Turner a big wheel in Christiancircles, was followed by "By the Light of a Thousand Stars."

Now, Turner's publisher has reissued her first novel, "Suncatchers." Beforeyou roll your eyes, be assured we're not going to be forced next to readthe haiku Turner published in middle school. "Suncatchers" turns out to bethe best of the three. Perry Warren, a sociologist who writes children'sbooks as a sideline, heads south to Derby to write an ethnography ofa fundamentalist church. What he finds at the Church of the Open Door (whereBirdie plays the organ) confounds all his stereotypes: the congregantsaren't stiff-necked fanatics, but loving, concerned friends.

The Carolinas, dotted with tiny towns full of believers, seem to bethe landscape of choice for the new small-town genre. "Friendship Cake," byU.C.C. pastor Lynne Hinton has gotten a lot of attention in publishingcircles, signing on for two sequels before this one hit the bookstores. But this book is lesssatisfying than Turner's and Gulley's novels. Think "How to Make an American Quilt" with athin Christian gloss. In "Friendship Cake," The Women's Guild of Hope Springs Community Church isworking on a cookbook and, as the title suggests, they learn about more thanjust baking.

Edgier than most Christian fiction--the charming pastor is awoman, for example--Hinton's book doesn't dish up insights about forgiveness,grace, and faith that, cloying or not, are the sine qua non of the genre.