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Lauren F. Winner


Mitford Rules

Jan Karon and the clerical novel.

I am in minor literary mourning. Light from Heaven, the final Mitford novel, has just been released. I stayed up all night reading it, and when I had finished, I remembered a story my mother used to tell me. As a girl, she was a devoted reader of Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle series. When she came to the last page of the last installment—Dr. Dolittle's Puddleby Adventures—she bawled. She hated knowing that she would never again encounter new Dolittle tales.

For those who do not number themselves among Jan Karon's millions of fans, here's a quick summary: The Mitford novels, set in small-town western North Carolina (think Lake Wobegon with less irony), follow the quaint adventures of an Episcopal priest named Father Tim and his next-door-neighbor-turned-significant-other-turned-wife Cynthia. I use the term "adventures" loosely, because the most adventurous thing Father Tim ever does is take an airplane ride. Most of the time he's making hospital calls, drafting sermons, packing picnic lunches, reading Wordsworth, walking his remarkable dog Barnabas (who responds not to the usual canine commands, but to the recitation of Scripture), and writing a lot of letters (and, increasingly, emails).

Light from Heaven finds Father Tim and Cynthia just outside Mitford, looking after Meadowgate Farm, while Meadowgate's owners, the Owenses, spend a year in France. As ever, Father Tim wrestles with that Protestant demon, Usefulness. Especially now that he has retired, he is deeply concerned that he not Waste Time, but find a way of going about the business of being useful to someone. Fortunately, his bishop calls with a charge: go revive a small mission church whose doors have been closed for decades. Of course, Father Tim and Cynthia are just the ones for the job. Along the way, they take in not one but two stray children. Meanwhile, a few Mitfordians die, a few more get married, a lost sibling gets found, a million orange marmalade cakes get baked … just a typical year ...

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