Velma Still Cooks in Leeway
By Vinita Hampton Wright
Broadman and Holman, 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 seventh and purportedly last "Mitford" book rolls off the presses. I'm a sucker for these novels of quaint-Christian-life-in-a-small-town. Think Lake Wobegon, only evangelical: We have a charming, insightful pastor and eccentric, lovable villagers who collect in a coffee shop on Main Street to be neighborly and occasionally nosy. At the end of every story is an easily digestible moral. The formula has made Karon a zillionaire and a heroine among publishers of Christian fiction, who long to be taken seriously on The New York Times best-seller list.

Don't fear, Mitford fans. There's a surfeit of small-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 of feel-good "Front Porch Tales." Now he turns his hand to the small-town novel. Harmony is Karon's Mitford, transplanted to the Midwest, and Sam Gardner, Harmony's favorite son, has come home to settle down. He pastors the Quaker flock in Harmony, finding life lessons in the dullest vestry meetings. Winesburg, Ohio, it's not, but you'll be relieved when you get to the 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. Sven Birkerts wrote that "to read ... is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any act of traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left."

These small town Christian novels are precisely about the places, or perhaps a time, we have left behind. When I've had a little too much Manhattan, I take 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 a little anomic and atomizing at times. I am grateful for these novels, if a little embarrassed that they sustain me.

The challenge for Christians, of course, is to find a way to create those communities outside of fiction. If we Christians were doing things right, I would head to my church, not to my bookshelf, when the grind of 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 Jones University professor Jamie Langston Turner: Derby and Filbert. In her 1998 novel, "Some Wildflowers in My Heart," Turner introduced readers to Margaret Tuttle, an autodidact cafeteria worker who finds herself mysteriously drawn to local church organist and all around goody-goody named Birdie Freeman. "Wildflowers," which made Turner a big wheel in Christian circles, was followed by "By the Light of a Thousand Stars."

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

The Carolinas, dotted with tiny towns full of believers, seem to be the landscape of choice for the new small-town genre. "Friendship Cake," by U.C.C. pastor Lynne Hinton has gotten a lot of attention in publishing circles, signing on for two sequels before this one hit the bookstores. But this book is less satisfying than Turner's and Gulley's novels. Think "How to Make an American Quilt" with a thin Christian gloss. In "Friendship Cake," The Women's Guild of Hope Springs Community Church is working on a cookbook and, as the title suggests, they learn about more than just baking. Edgier than most Christian fiction--the charming pastor is a woman, 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.

If the South isn't your cup of tea, there's always the plains. "Velma Still Cooks in Leeway" (since when did cooking become a sign not for wholesomeness, but for deeper stirrings?) shows us the underbelly of the small Christian town. This second novel by Vinita Hampton Wright, whose 1999 "Grace at Bender Springs" garnered critical acclaim, "Velma" is set in Leeway, Kansas. "That's in the southeast corner of the state, not far from Oklahoma or Missouri. You might know where Leeway is if you were related to someone here or if your car broke down here when you were headed somewhere else. Otherwise, you'll go the length of your life without ever paying us a visit."

We meet plenty of eccentric folks in Leeway, and Velma herself runs the local diner where those eccentric folks like to congregate, but Leeway is plagued by the very things most fictional Christian towns pointedly lack: problems. Or, at least, Wright's problems aren't the kind that are solved in 10 pages by a visit from the kindly pastor. They are problems that keep--or should keep--Christians up nights.

Velma's young friend Shellye, raped by the church's golden boy, finds herself pregnant. The church pressures her to give up the baby for adoption, but Shellye determines to keep it. Happily, during her pregnancy, she is courted by quite a catch: the lanky and devoted Grady Lewis, a fine preacher who would "tramp to hell and back to be a good husband and father." He woos Shellye, marries her, but then beats her. Such things don't happen in Mitford, or Harmony for that matter.

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