Out to Canaan, the fourth book in Jan Karon’s series, transpires in Mitford, North Carolina, a town time forgot. In her first book, At Home in Mitford, she tells readers that the town’s vintage flavor is guarded by citizens who “discourage serious tourism.” Mitford’s lush private gardens and small-town green set around a war memorial create an ethos that recalls towns from Oxford, Mississippi, to Bath, Maine. Out to Canaan continues readers’ acquaintance with the soft-spoken and caring rector Tim Kavanaugh, whose marriage to Cynthia Coppersmith, prefigured in the first novel, is now well established. Percy and Velma Mosley, owners of the local grill; eccentric Aunt Rose and Uncle Billy, who view the world from chrome dinette chairs; the young Dooley, taken under Father Tim’s wing and brought to town for proper schooling and wider social interaction; and Father Tim’s ebullient secretary, Emma—all these reappear and continue their banter and interaction. Even Barnabas, the stray dog that tracks Father Tim down in At Home in Mitford, perpetrates his own series of crises. Readers of the series will be happy to continue their acquaintance with this cast of Southern townsfolk, savoring their friendships, difficulties, and epiphanies in Mitford and in the Episcopal congregation at Lord’s Chapel. Yet readers picking the book up for the first time will have no trouble understanding the relationships or the narrative continuity because of Karon’s skillful weave of memory and event.
Karon’s style re-creates life in Southern towns, where highly idiosyncratic personalities live side by side with genteel descendants of families whose aristocratic backgrounds linked them to classical education and the English Romantic poets. Some characters have tasted life in Paris. In one poignant lunchtime conversation, Miss Sadie Baxter and Father Tim share their reminiscences of Europe.
Miss Sadie personifies the traditional, faded Southern lady. Her failed European romance with a man who became Mitford’s most wealthy entrepreneur has left her a frail spinster whom the town reveres for her taste and delicacy. She has a conscience and a sense of the caretaking of old Southern plantation families for their slaves and hired workers. In the contemporary setting of Karon’s books, this translates into Miss Sadie’s desire to leave her estate, called Fernbank, to the Episcopal Church so the property can be developed as a retirement home for area residents.
Other characters, such as Puny and Emma, have barely enough schooling to get by on but are rich in common sense. They excel in their ability for good hard work. Karon peppers their speech with colloquial aphorisms; in fact, even the highly educated rector has adopted the homey character of Southern sayings. During preparations for company at the rectory, he tells Cynthia that the tablecloth she wants to use is “worn as thin as a moth’s wing.”
The other ingredient of Southern character that Karon celebrates throughout Out to Canaan is the loyalty and compassion that townspeople feel for one another and their town. Leaving nothing to suggestion, Karon makes Mitford’s slogan “Mitford Takes Care of Its Own.” One of the central plot lines in Out to Canaan is the political pretensions of Mack Stroupe and his drive to unseat longtime mayor Esther Cunningham. The speculation about where Stroupe got his money and his fancy new lifestyle is satisfied only near the novel’s end, when the high-powered Florida-based Miami Development Company appears in town, positioning itself to buy Fernbank and turn it into a luxury health spa/retreat.
Yet little attention is paid to how town solidarity affects the black population. Only one black character is mentioned: Louella, Miss Sadie’s faithful maid, who has returned to help the ailing old lady in her last years in the series opener, At Home in Mitford. In Out to Canaan, Karon’s treatment of Louella reminds readers of phrases heard in the 1960’s, as the Civil Rights movement was gathering force. Then Southerners reiterated, “We always took good care of our Negroes; they never complained.” Louella’s position in Mitford echoes all those sentiments indirectly. She also fills another stereotypical role. The Sunday after Dooley and his mother are united with the youngest missing Barlowe child, Father Tim asks Louella to sing in Lord’s Chapel. As she stands to perform, she “raises her hands heavenward” and begins to sing Amazing Grace “alone and unaccompanied.” Karon cannot resist characterizing her powerful voice as “bronze” as it fills the congregation with the song’s moving words. Yet even then, Karon has Father Tim—not Louella—bestow the gift of her song. As he passes his eyes over the congregation, he thinks: “This is for you, Dooley; and for Poo and Jesse, and for you, Pauline, whom the hound of...
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