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.
But beyond the community, there's another contender for star of the series. I suspect that Karon would say that the central figure in the Mitford novels is neither Father Tim nor the charming village itself, but Jesus Christ. Karon gives readers a warm community, but she is utterly unabashed in proclaiming what the source of that warmth and neighborliness is. It is the Gospel. Conversions, such as the dramatic conversion of George Gaynor in "At Home in Mitford," are commonplace in the town. As Karon depicts Gaynor's, one day in the middle of a Sunday service at Lord's Chapel the ceiling opens (it's not a heavenly vision, just attic stairs coming down) and out climbs George, a criminal who's been hiding in the attic and who has been converted by Father Tim's ministrations in the sanctuary. Perhaps you've been wondering about J.C. Hogan, the gruff editor of Mitford's newspaper-the only one of Father Tim's buddies who seems to have no time for Christianity. Well, rest assured--he declares his faith in "Light from Heaven." So does Edith Mallory, Mitford's resident wealthy shrew. Though medically incapacitated and barely able to speak, she manages to wheel into the middle of town and publicly profess God's goodness.
Readers, do not despair. The Mitford novels may have come to an end, but no publisher with sense would let a project this profitable get away. So, although there will be no more Mitford novels, according to Karon's offical website, "Cynthia Coppersmith Kavanagh's children's series [about her cat Violet] will soon become a reality." (It's about time! I wondered why Karon, who has herself dabbled in writing children's books, didn't publish a few Violet stories years ago.) Next year will also see the release of a Mitford Bedside Companion, and rumor has it that Karon will give us three more novels about Tim and Cynthia, though not about Mitford. I'm guessing they'll be set in Ireland, where Father Tim loves to travel, or perhaps in Mississippi, where he grew up.
I'm not sure I care that much about the cat exploits, and I'm certainly not sure I know what a Mitford Bedside Companion is. But I do know I'll be the first in line at my local bookstore the day they're released. For Jan Karon's books always offer not just a glimpse of a simple life, but a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.