Although popular novelist Jan Karon has finished her Mitford series, everyone’s favorite Episcopal priest is back in HOME TO HOLLY SPRINGS, her first installment of the Father Tim Novels.
Throughout the Mitford series, Karon dropped clues about Father Tim Kavanagh’s childhood and his occasional bouts of depression that seemed tied to his conflicted view of his father. Now, Father Tim receives a mysterious unsigned note that reads only “Come home.” The note serves as the plot trigger that sends Father Tim back to his past and helps him resolve a host of personal issues.
The beloved Father Tim is 70 years old now --- or, as he says, “68 and some change.” His diabetes has slowed him down some, but the mysterious note intrigues him enough to make the trek to his hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, from North Carolina. He’s alone except for Barnabas, his aging dog, as Cynthia is sidelined in an ankle cast. It’s been 38 years since Father Tim has visited his hometown, and he’s nervous about what he’ll find there.
When he arrives in Holly Springs, still unsure of his next move, it’s a trip down memory lane. Karon handles her flashbacks well, painting a rich portrait of Father Tim’s southern upbringing and his early childhood. We discover Father Tim’s father’s problematic relationship with his own father, the relationship between Father Tim’s parents, and some of the dark secrets he was unaware of as a child. For the first time, Father Tim begins to understand some things about his past and move toward resolution.
Racial tension crops up throughout the flashbacks, as you’d expect with the southern setting. Father Tim’s love for and, later, deep hurt in his relationship with his family’s African American maid Peggy resolves in a plot twist that may catch the reader by surprise. Look for more on this, most likely, in book two.
Karon mixes interesting regional food dishes into her narrative, just as she did in the previous series. If you haven’t heard of squirrel dumplings or roasted woodchuck, then fasten your seatbelts. Other southern delights, such as fresh-caught catfish, homemade coleslaw and fruit cobblers will leave your mouth watering for a taste.
The new cast of Holly Springs characters is as delightful as the old, with the introduction of plenty of interesting men and women you’ll want to know better. Karon uses regional dialect and folk sayings to acclimate readers to the Mississippi landscape and its residents, such as “bring tears to a glass eye” or “welcome as th’ flowers in May” that help the audience gain a sense of the novel’s place and time.
Karon is adept at interweaving faith into her narrative in a way that engages the reader. In one scene, Jessica, a friend from the past, tells Father Tim: “I think th’ whole point of life is to know God, and be able to accept the way things turn out.” Or, as another character, Henry, tells him, “Not everything can be understood or resolved. But it all has to be faced.” These two quotes summarize the theme of the book as Father Tim struggles with forgiveness, grace and acceptance.
Karon knows how to sprinkle her novel with laugh-aloud humor and rib-tickling jokes. More fun: quirky Elvis stories abound. Serious-minded readers will also find meaty quotes from George MacDonald, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard and G.K. Chesterton that prompt personal reflection.
Although this is a new series, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to begin with it if you missed the earlier one. Start with AT HOME IN MITFORD and read the Mitford series in order. HOME TO HOLLY SPRINGS will make more sense, as well as be richer, for doing so. This is an auspicious beginning for Karon’s new fictional venture, and readers of the Mitford books will be happy to discover the same wonderful brand of fiction they’ve grown to love.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on January 22, 2011
Home to Holly Springs: The First of the Father Tim Novels