Author: Jan Karon
Returning to the charm of Mitford, this time glowing in the health of Spring, Jan Karon follows the previous novel, A Light in the Window, in which the frustrated and yet lovable bachelor priest, elderly Father Tim, confronts his fears and proposes to his next door neighbor and true love. Here then, we expect wedding bells and Father Tim’s continued grappling with this penultimate life’s decision. Of course, as any Internet savvy book reader knows, These High, Green Hills instead catapults us forward to Father Tim’s post honeymoon bliss, settling with his eccentric and endearing love, Cynthia for more of the regular and dynamic activities of Mitford. What you Internet savvy die-hard book fans also probably know is that fans were less than pleased, eventually resulting in a back-in-time book, book six in the series specifically, which is just wedding focused and ultimately less than pleasing. Once you know and accept these chronological facts, and push them gently aside, the verve of Mitford, supposedly sleepy little Southern Town and the undertow of contentment even in the face of life’s very real trials, will once again wrap you into a safety blanket that softly, gently, lulls you into a mindset where all things come of God and everything, even the sadness of life, has a soft, loving quality.
In this particular volume, Father Tim is coming to terms with Cynthia’s hilarious penchant for furniture rearrangement – the heavier and more difficult to move the piece, the better it seems to be for trying out in new places. Owning two homes, attached to each other, still keeps the same separation alive, and it’s only when embarking on a fateful camping trip, and following Cynthia’s enthusiastic instinct for any kind of exploration, that truly leaves both characters open and vulnerable to the nature of relationships and the risk that is love – a sightless walk in the dark while holding onto the reassurance of another lost hand, a warm body that sightlessly groups and loves and protects and journeys alongside you. This particular moment in the book, which covers several large sections and involves the strange, Jules Verne like imagery of caves and underground sanctuaries turned dangerous, is one of Karon’s most authentic and encapsulating moves and any leftover angst from her glossing over the big wedding is eased, if not entirely erased.
Alongside the settling of a new and cozy life, the surprising daily blessings of discovering another person entwined within your struggles, your quiet moments, the very fabric of your comforting daily routine, Mitford continues to be populated by quite a cast of characters. Miss Sadie Baxter is just as vibrant as before, yet declining health and losing her car license might be enough to throw the cheerful older lady into a depressive funk – and Father Tim is the one left behind to deal with both the fallout and the ramifications of parishioners growing old and closer to their final journey.
Dooley Barlow, struggling a bit less with “ain’t” is now set-up in the world by Miss Sadie to go onward to a fancy private school. Teased by the entire town not to get the “big head,” no one truly understands what it might feel like for Dooley, who came from a dysfunctional family on the wrong side of the tracks, to suddenly be thrown into a host of snobbish boys and girls who have never faced drunk parents, starvation, or adult violence.
Meanwhile, Father Tim is trying to figure out how to be the best father and friend figure for Dooley, but this just may include trying something new and utterly terrifying.
Another town youngster, the rough and tumble Lace Turner, is slowly finding her way to the rectory, escaping abuse but ever pulled back into it by the love and needs of an invalid, trapped mother. At the same time, Dooley’s own mother is beginning to have regrets about her life and selling her own children, sometimes just for whiskey.
As spring bleeds into the stillness of sultry summer, Father Tim takes life one step at a time, growing further in love with Cynthia and also finding his married self while struggling to raise Dooley and do the right thing for Lace. The pristine nature of the series is in full force and the previous bumps in the road from Father Tim’s commitment phobia and extremism are distant blips on a faraway horizon. Karon’s writing is perfectly settled into itself, her town evocative and organic, her characters real and empathetic. Readers are torn between the drama of real life struggles and events and the sheer contentedness that Karon broadly paints across life itself and the ups and downs in particular of Father Tim and the little town of Mitford. The issues are complex yet the pace is leisurely, just the right balance of real life with the all’s right feeling of a world ultimately watched over by a loving God, containing love even in the ugliest of places.
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