Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Mitford lives in 'Mountain'

Jan Karon's much-loved series carries on in familiar style

By Ann Hicks, ahicks@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        So what are you doing these days? It's a question the Rev. Timothy Kavanagh hears often, and he hates it.

        Of course, the retired Episcopal priest of Lord's Chapel in Mitford has been busy. He can't say no to anyone.

        He spends endless hours raising funds for the children's hospital; works on his now picture-perfect lawn (and the lawn of the former rectory, next door); helps out the new mayor; and fills in at pulpits near his fictitious hometown nestled in the North Carolina mountains.

    In This Mountain
   By Jan Karon
   Viking; $25.95; 382 pages
        Yet something is missing in his life; he is restless.

        In This Mountain, Jan Karon's entertaining seventh novel in her much-loved Mitford series, begins two years after Father Tim served as interim minister at a small parish on Whitecap Island along the Atlantic coast, the story told in book five, A New Song (Penguin USA; $12.95 paperback).

        The diabetic, nearly 70-year-old Father Tim is neglecting his diet and exercise regimen and has postponed his biannual checkup. When he steps on his glucometer and puts off replacing it, you can see it coming from a mile away: He is headed for disaster.

        It is a particularly dark period in Father Tim's life. Weeks in the hospital. Months of rest at home. Exhaustion. Depression. Self-loathing. Prayer. He says he's “as useless as moss on a stump.”

        As in all of the Mitford books, dozens of characters and subplots pop in and out of the story.

        Joe Ivey, the barber, and Fancy Skinner, who runs a unisex hair salon, are locked in a price war. The Main Street Grill has a new menu; you can get a taco salad now, but no more grilled pimento cheese sandwiches.

        Bill Watson tries his darnedest to make Father Tim laugh at one of his many jokes.

        The wealthy, despicable Edith Mallory is as conniving as ever in her attempts to woo Father Tim, and no one in Mitford dislikes this woman more than the reverend. Emma Newland, his former church secretary, is after him to get with it and buy a laptop.

        The “Man in the Attic,” George Gaynor, is released from prison and headed to Mitford. (A jewel thief, he had hidden out in the attic of Lord's Chapel eight years earlier and turned himself in during a Sunday service.)

        Father Tim's beloved wife, Cynthia, a children's book illustrator, is to be awarded a prestigious medal for her work and has been invited on a two-week coast-to-coast author tour.

        The search grows warmer for one of adopted son Dooley's missing siblings. Dooley's fascination with the lovely Lace Turner cools off.

        The Kavanaghs' housekeeper, Puny Guthrie, and her twins Sissy and Sassy, are still crazy about their Granpaw. (And Puny lets her favorite employer know she is craving sweet pickles and ice cream in the middle of the night.) Father Tim's 71-year-old bishop and best friend is determined to build a cathedral. The Methodists have a new minister — a woman!

        You get the picture. There is never a dull moment in Mitford. In This Mountain is as warm and amusing as all Ms. Karon's other books. No sex. No violence. Very few naughty words. A charming slice of life in small-town America. A quick read, too. And it doesn't matter if you haven't read the other Mitford books. Each one stands on its own.

        Gradually, things begin to turn around for Father Tim, thanks be to God. Prayer, obviously central to his life, is more important than ever in this book. While filling in for his successor at Lord's Chapel one Sunday, his sermon especially touches everyone in the congregation — this reader, too.

        It's a proud moment when Father Tim sends an e-mail without Emma's help. Alleluia! We know he's going to be OK.


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