Jan Karon’s Mitford Series


Basically, these are Episcopalian gentle reads. Having avoided all ‘gentle reads’, religious or otherwise, for years, I finally succumbed a couple of years ago out of a sense of professional obligation to expand my literary horizons a bit so I could do better readers’ advisory, and picked this one at random. I started with At Home in Mitford, and was surprised to like it well enough to read more: at the moment, I’m up to A Light in the Window, These High Green Hills, Out to Canaan and Light from Heaven since then.

The series begins with Father Tim Kavanagh, the Episcopalian priest in a small town in North Carolina, contemplating retirement, loneliness and his health. In At Home in Mitford, Barnabas, a large black dog of uncertain ancestry, firmly adopts him, and he has Dooley, a child of uncertain familial status, thrust upon him. In A Light in the Window, he realizes that his next door neighbor, Cynthia, is the one for him, and at 63 (if I’ve done the math right) he marries. The series continues approximately thus for another seven books, all wholesome, all affectionate, with very few lasting bobbles.

On the plus side, the religion is very much part of the plot–it’s simply how Father Tim is and how he lives–rather than prickling out from the page in order to browbeat the readers with a Sermon on Proper Christianity. On the down side, they’re a bit sickly sweet for anyone who prefers books closer to the thriller genre.

I haven’t read any other ‘gentle reads’ in the religion sub-genre so I don’t know how these compare to the majority of the genre, but Karon’s books are definitely comfort reads; everything will come right in the end. It’s not that everything’s fine and dandy in the books. People die, uncomfortably and alone on occasion. There’s alcoholism, and broken homes/families, and neglected children. Yet, somehow everything comes around to a happy ending. Prayer works, albeit indirectly. The angry abused tweens never quite sink into delinquency, much less genuine criminal lives.

Mitford is no more like most of our lives than Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. I can well guess that people are either going to love it or loathe it for the very same qualities: the characters have none of the grit or tartness ground into most people living in the real world. If you like religious gentle reads (and these are gentle indeed, with no doubt or real fear) or anything gooey about the beauties of small town social ties, you’ll love the Mitford books. The closest read-alikes I can think of based on my personal experience are actually from a generation or two prior to Karon’s writing: Miss Read and Elizabeth Goudge–Karon’s writing strikes me as that kind of archaic style, where life is, in the main, G-rated. At least in books.

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