The Mitford books have served up slices of small town life now for
more than a half a dozen years, and as the well-loved series winds
down, Jan Karon focuses this full-sized novel, SHEPHERDS ABIDING,
on "the most wonderful time of the year" --- Christmas.
Miford lovers know that the plot of the books is not the point;
rather, it's the enjoyable escape into the daily exploits of the
Mitford characters that keeps the pages turning. This latest
installment is no exception. The narrative revolves around Father
Tim's restoration of an old, battered nativity set, which he hopes
to complete for his wife Cynthia as a surprise for Christmas. As he
painstakingly sands the plaster figures, uncovering their natural
beauty, he also uncovers a surprising talent for working creatively
with his hands. When a nativity piece must be discarded because it
is damaged beyond repair, Father Tim also discards some of his
fondest dreams for the future --- and creates some new ones. The
restoration of the figures becomes symbolic of Father Tim's
personal restoration as he enjoys his retirement. "He felt a happy
contentment flowing up in him, as a spring from a hidden source,"
Karen writes. Meanwhile, Cynthia is busy with her own Christmas
surprise, which will offer Father Tim some consolation after a
There's something especially endearing about the late-in-life love
between Father Tim and Cynthia, who are aging well, yet aging
nonetheless. With poignancy, Father Tim discovers that one of the
gifts of growing old is recapturing lost memories. He finds himself
reminiscing about past Christmases with his mother and father, and
remembering the lonely and imaginative child that he had been. Some
tender recollections of his indifferent father also resurface. A
solid underpinning of hope anchors all of the Mitford novels, and
the hope SHEPHERDS ABIDING offers seems to be that the last part of
life is to be anticipated.
But this is no serious Christmas tale. As with all of the Mitford
novels, there's plenty of gentle humor. "Just think! All that
misery over taxes," Cynthia observes of the holy family's journey
to Bethlehem. Father Tim answers, "Some things never change."
And indeed, in some ways, life hasn't changed much in Mitford,
although the characters are older and their circumstances are a
little different. Dooley Barlowe is away at university, and Louella
Baxter Marshall is at Hope House retirement center, baking biscuits
and ordering her Christmas presents online. Uncle Billy and Rose
Watson exemplify committed love in the face of hardship. The search
continues for Dooley's missing little brother Kenny, which will
likely be wrapped up in the last book of the series.
A few changes are afoot. The Grill is closing, and there's a light
shining through the windows above the Happy Endings bookstore, now
the home of its new owner. Puny is pregnant with twins --- again.
However, there is a sense that the series is winding down, and the
Mitford years are drawing toward a gentle close. After bringing
more than 15 million copies of Karon's books to readers, Viking
will publish THE MITFORD COOKBOOK AND KITCHEN READER next year;
then the last novel in the Mitford series, LIGHT FROM HEAVEN, in
The endearing nature of SHEPHERDS ABIDING, as with other Mitford
titles, is that you find a point of connection to all its
characters. Father Tim is the pastor you've always wanted; Uncle
Billy and his aging wife Rose are the eccentric elderly relatives
the family jokes about but loves; Hope is the single gal everyone
is rooting for to find a guy who deserves her; and Dooley is that
kid who came from bad circumstances, but you know has promise.
Through Karon's eyes, Mitford is really our town --- like Andy
Griffith's Mayberry, it is full of homespun wisdom plunked down
with enough subtlety to make it palatable, but still obvious enough
that we don't miss it. Readers should find SHEPHERDS ABIDING a
peaceful entrée into the Christmas season, and an enjoyable
read all year round.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011
Shepherds Abiding: A Mitford Christmas Story