I think the title of Jan Karon’s newest Mitford novel, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good, encapsulates what I appreciate about the series. For me, being immersed in one of Karon’s books is being somewhere safe. It’s not that bad things don’t happen to people in her books – in this book one character deals with the death of a mother, and a couple deals with a difficult pregnancy, in addition to a variety of other personal struggles large and small. But it is all seen through the lens of Christian faith, in the context of God’s love and grace and sovereign providence.
For some readers, this is not a selling point. I read some reader reviews at amazon.com complaining that this novel is too religious. I didn’t find it that way at all. I have read some Christian fiction that feels like a religious tract, where the story seems to be nothing but a vehicle for preaching the gospel. But I don’t get that sense in Karon’s books. Father Tim is a man of faith (“somebody good”), and it feels perfectly natural to me when he prays with people who are hurting, when he prays alone or with his wife over decisions he needs to make, and when they pray daily prayers because that strengthens their faith and their relationship with God.
I have found in the last few books, unlike the earlier books in the series, that too much seems to be tied up neatly by the end of the book. There are heartbreak and suffering, but before long things start getting better. In the earlier books, as in life, sometimes the uncertainty and disappointment go on and on and on. Yet there is not the sense of cynicism or fatalism that some novels have when they deal with the darker side of human nature. In all Karon’s books, Father Tim trusts God, even when he can’t see God’s reasons for what is happening in his life and in the lives of those he loves.
Some readers also complain that there are too many characters, and too much jumping around among the various characters and their particular bit of the storyline. I didn’t find this to be an issue for me, although there are books I have read where I struggled to keep track of who was who. I’m not sure how well developed several of the minor characters are, but I don’t remember getting them confused with each other – except when they share the same first name.
It’s interesting to watch Father Tim try to cope with retirement. He wants to keep busy, to feel useful, and not having a job poses challenges to his faith and faithfulness just as much as did his previous role of a parish priest, though in very different ways. Both he and his wife also have to cope with health issues, and with the limitations these impose on their activities. Some of their friends have also had to “pass the baton” to younger people and struggle with watching those people not doing as well (in their opinion) as they used to do.
I’m still at least fifteen years from retirement, but it is good to see a positive example, written from a Christian perspective, of the challenges of that season of life and how to meet them with grace and faith.