Book Review: The Mitford Series
Posted May 13, 2013on:
A Light in the Window, Jan Karon, Viking Penguin Books, 1995, 413 pp.
These High, Green Hills, Jan Karon, Lion Publishing, 1996, 333 pp.
Where do I even start to talk about these books? I have heard them recommended several times over the years, as delightful stories about an Episcopal rector in a small town in North Carolina. I had never really taken up with them. I feel a general disdain for the category of “Christian fiction,” because I like my faith to engage the real world, not a softer, gentler version of it. However, this spring in my ministry has been painful and sorrowful enough–a soft, gentle story seemed like a healing idea. These had come highly recommended by people I trusted. They would be nice and sweet, and that would be fine by me.
The first book, At Home in Mitford, was delightful. It introduced Father Tim Kavanagh, the rector of Lord’s Chapel in Mitford, NC, who had lived into his sixties as a bachelor priest, high on work and low on adventure. Then we are slowly introduced to his parish–his acerbic secretary Emma; the oldest and most generous and wealthiest member Miss Sadie Baxter; her lifelong friend Louella; Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, the town’s eccentric characters; Dooley Barlow, a young man taken in by the rector; the mayor Esther Cunningham; the local doctor and veterinarian, who are among his friends; the owners of local businesses and many more. The book tells of three major developments in the priest’s staid life: the arrival of a dog who is disciplined only by scripture, the diagnosis of diabetes, and the arrival of a new and charmingly attractive neighbor. The rest of the story simply recounts episodes in the life of the small town and its characters. There is little character development, and the characters (even Father Tim) are not particularly deep or complicated in their emotional lives. Even the most major of problems are resolved within a few pages. It’s like episodes of Highway to Heaven or Seventh Heaven, without anything plot lines that are actually heart-wrenching. It’s not like any of the novels I usually read, and I found myself drawn in to the life of the small town with delight. There were some annoying factors about the life of the priest (like his terrible boundaries and refusal to take a vacation) and the portrayal of theology that was in no way Episcopalian (having him save a lost soul by kneeling and praying the “Believer’s Prayer” is evangelical, not Episcopal). However, the Christian themes were not heavy-handed or moralizing, so I just enjoyed the story.
The book was so light and easy it was like cotton candy, and quickly devoured. I was eager for more, so I dove right into A Light in the Window. Unfortunately, it did not match the first book, and I really did not enjoy it much at all. The plot of the second volume centers on his relationship with his neighbor Cynthia, and their long-distance courtship while she is in New York writing one of her children’s books. There is nothing at all appealing to me about a simple romance between two shallow characters, and I found myself skimming whole chapters of flowery love letters. The other characters I had come to love faded into the background, and the neurotic Father Tim and Cynthia took a long, boring time to admit they loved each other. I am a quite direct and decisive person myself, and I found little entertaining in their dithering and diversions. It didn’t help that Father Tim’s boundaries got even worse, as he had people walking all over him, including an unwanted cousin living in his guest room throughout. I almost quit, but I hoped moving through their romance and into their marriage would return to the parish-related plot lines I had enjoyed in the first book. I plowed through and turned to the third.
A Light in the Window also became more heavy-handed in its portrayal of Christianity and morality. Other than a kiss or an embrace, there is no talk of sexuality between Father Tim and Cynthia, except for a conversation about waiting until marriage that could have been lifted from an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum. While I’m not one for romances and wasn’t looking for something steamy, it just seemed devoid of passion. They also begin praying together and quoting scripture at one another in ways that were just too, too perfect and pleasant. They didn’t ever seem to struggle with their faith or relationship with God, they just lived by this simple moral code of prayer, worship and tending to personal needs of the parish. While the first book felt nice and sweet in a way that was refreshing and charming, the second book felt sanitized for your protection and attempting to persuade readers of the benefits of chastity. Gag.
Still hoping to return to the joy of the first book, I plunged headlong into the third, These High, Green Hills. Cynthia and Father Tim jumped from announcing their marriage to having been married for several months, so that whole sex thing disappeared entirely. There was no mention of their intimacy, only of the challenges of merging households, Cynthia’s stepping into the role of pastor’s wife (gag again) and collapsing into the same bed exhausted every night. It was as vanilla as Leave it to Beaver, which made me roll my eyes at every careful avoidance of sexuality in their marriage. It felt unreal and unbelievable, even irritating to me. I was eager to return to the parish stories, which were more enjoyable fantasies of uncomplicated lives. The novel did just that, and I was grateful to catch up with Sadie Baxter, Dooley Barlowe and the rest.
However, midway through there was a startling, downright offensive comment of a sexual nature. I am not easily offended, and I would not have been offended by the reference in most other settings. However, this line was the ONLY one that referenced their sexual life together, and that made its inappropriateness all the more glaring. Father Tim and Cynthia are laying stones for a path between their houses, and Karon writes, “Given how youthful she was looking and what he was thinking, he could be jailed for violation of the Mann Act.” (135) The Mann Act was originally passed out of racist fears of white women trafficked across state lines for sexual purposes, and it was designed to protect white women from forced prostitution. However, it has mostly been enforced (and casual references imply) to prohibit sex with minors, who are considered too young to consent. So, in the book, after hundreds of pages of abstinence and asexual marriage, the lone reference to their sexual lives compares the priest’s desire for his wife (both old enough for AARP) to the desire to take a young girl across state lines for the purpose of having non-consensual sex with her. How twisted is that? Somehow, we get paragraphs upon paragraphs about their decision to wait until marriage (without any pining or sense that this is a challenge), then we get a marriage marked only by cuddling—until suddenly the priest fantasizes about his wife like an underage girl, too young to consent? Disgusting. This is everything that is wrong with “Christian culture” and its teachings on sexuality—don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, but idolize the image of the virgin girl. There is no room for mature sexuality between consenting adults. I was so appalled that I put the book down and thought long and hard about giving it up altogether.
After consulting friends on Facebook, I decided to keep going, mostly because I wanted to find out what happened to Miss Sadie Baxter. I did, along with most of the rest of the town, and the story was both enjoyable and satisfying. However, I’ll be taking a break from this series. I don’t know if I will ever return again. While I enjoy the sweet, small-town interactions of the parish and I want to read about Mitford, I can’t take any more of dithering Father Tim and Cynthia, of their asexual non-passion, of Christian moralizing, and certainly no more lines like the one reference to sexuality above. Here’s my verdict: some I loved, some I hated, some was “meh.”