At Home in Mitford

by Jan Karon
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

Loneliness is a recurring theme in the novel. Many of the characters lead solitary lives and depend upon Father Tim and friends for emotional support. Father Tim is lonely, too. Through prayer, he maintains a close spiritual relationship with God, but at mealtimes and in the evenings, he imagines how much richer life would be if he had a wife. He neglects his house and his health and appearance until Emma and the vestry hire Puny, a housekeeper, to look after him. The big, affectionate dog Barnabas and Dooley Barlowe become Father Tim's surrogate children, and he relies on his cousin Walter, Hal and Marge, and Cynthia for adult companionship.

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Miss Sadie is lonely in her Fernbank mansion. She eats Swanson's frozen chicken pies and apples from her orchard. With Father Tim, she reminisces about her happy childhood and youth, when she met Willard Porter in Paris and fell in love. After her father forbade their marriage, she isolated herself from social activities. The arrival of Louella, her childhood playmate and servant, renews her energy and inspires her to contribute money for a retirement home.

Dooley Barlowe has watched his mother sink into alcoholism and neglect his younger brothers and sisters. He kept the family together and looked after the little ones until the day that his mother gave them away "like candy." Dooley lives with Russell Jacks, his maternal grandfather, until the old man is hospitalized. His experiences make him an aggressive, hostile boy who trusts no one. At school, he has fights; he is rude and stubborn. Father Tim slowly wins his confidence, and Dooley finds security at Meadowgate Farm with Hal and Marge and their new baby.

Uncle Billy is especially lonely, having lived for many years with Rose, a schizophrenic. Her eccentric clothing and behavior isolate them from others in the community. Because Uncle Billy knows that Father Tim will welcome them, they "crash" his dinner party and enjoy the food and conversation. For once, Rose behaves: she does not disparage Uncle Billy or comment unfavorably on the food or guests.

Another recurring theme is the revelation of secret lives. Placid on the surface, Mitford is a setting for hidden conflicts. For instance, Miss Sadie Baxter notices that Olivia Davenport resembles a photograph of her mother. Later, Louella confides to Father Tim that Sadie Baxter's mother had a child out of wedlock, who later became Olivia's mother. Unaware of their kinship, Miss Sadie is Olivia's great aunt. Although the relationship seems implausible, Karon creates suspense with hints that Miss Sadie's mother had something to hide.

Miss Sadie tells Father Tim why she never married Willard Porter, who was Miss Rose's brother. As a teenager, he angered her father with his reckless driving. Later, as a successful inventor of patent medicines, Porter built the Victorian mansion across from the town square in hopes of marrying Miss Sadie, but she would not defy her father. An argument between Porter and Baxter resulted in the fire that burned the original Lord's Chapel. Preacher Absalom Greer, Baxter's employee, also courted Miss Sadie, but she was in love with Willard Porter and would not marry him. Consequently, Willard, Sadie, and Greer have lived solitary lives.

Cynthia Coppersmith's Violet, the Cat series for children has won many awards. She has escaped memories of an unhappy marriage by moving to Mitford. No one knows of her past except Father Tim. Dooley, Emma, and Puny watch with delight as Father Tim's and Cynthia's "secret" love affair blossoms. Because of past experiences, Cynthia and Father Tim are unable to trust their intuitive attraction for each other.

Olivia Davenport has come to Mitford to die. In confidence, she tells Father Tim of her terminal heart disease and of her resolve to live every moment as fully as possible. She calls on the sick at the hospital and reads to them. There, she meets Dr. "Hoppy" Harper, who falls in love with her. Father Tim knows the anguish his friend has experienced over his first wife's death, so he counsels Olivia not to encourage Harper's courtship. Eventually, her secret is revealed, and Dr. Harper arranges a heart transplant operation in Boston.

Another theme is religious faith. Father Tim relies on prayer and scripture to guide him in every aspect of his life. He prays with the sick, the lonely, and with those who seek direction for their lives. Most of his prayers are answered.

Father Tim discovers Pete Jamison, a stranger in a business suit, kneeling at the altar of Our Lord's Chapel. The stranger looks up and shouts, "Are you up there?" Father Tim answers, "The question isn't are you up there, God? It's are you down here?" Jamison confesses that his life is poisoned by hatred so strong that he wants to kill someone. He does not believe God can forgive his sins. Father Tim tells him that old sins will be like dead leaves falling away when he invites Christ into his life. Together they pray, "Thank you, God, for loving me, for sending your Son to die for my sins. I sincerely repent of my sins and receive Christ as my personal savior. Now, as your child, I turn my life over to you. Amen." Feeling spiritually renewed, Pete Jamison promises to keep in touch with Father Tim. In the church attic, the jewel thief overhears Jamison's confession and prayer and is later motivated to do the same.

In spite of such successes, Father Tim doubts his own effectiveness as a priest. His lack of energy and bland sermons make him seek guidance from Stuart Cullen, his bishop, Preacher Greer, and Dr. Harper. All recommend a vacation, but Father Tim postpones it. For awhile, he diets and exercises faithfully, but a busy schedule interferes. Finally, he discovers how frail his body is when he nearly dies during a diabetic coma. At the end of the book, he takes a vacation to Ireland with his cousin Walter and his wife.

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