A New Song Summary
Father Timothy Kavanagh, protagonist of four earlier Mitford novels (At Home in Mitford, 1994; A Light in the Window, 1995; These High Green Hills, 1996; and Out to Cannan, 1997), has been retired for six months from his Episcopalian ministry in Lord’s Chapel in the mountain town of Mitford. Approaching his sixty-sixth birthday, he wonders how next to serve God, but he has already accepted an interim appointment at the church of St. John’s in the Grove on Whitecap Island, about six hundred miles from Mitford. He and his wife, Cynthia Coppersmith Kavanagh, a prominent children’s book writer and illustrator, prepare to leave Mitford but cannot leave their responsibilities behind.
Dooley Barlowe is a particular responsibility. Taken in by Kavanagh when eleven, Dooley is now sixteen, wants a car, and wants to remain in Mitford. While denying him a car, Kavanagh believes he has made satisfactory arrangements for Dooley to remain in Mitford under close supervision. They plan to continue the search for his lost siblings, abandoned by their alcoholic mother. That mother, now recovering, is engaged to a stable man; the couple wants Kavanagh to return to Mitford to marry them. The Kavanaghs also must rent out the rectory that Kavanagh bought when he retired. Their tenant is a Frenchwoman, Hélène Pringle, who apparently wants to teach piano in Mitford. They take her at her word. Reluctantly, they leave for the island, arriving in a storm.
The storm foreshadows challenges to come. Whitecap Island, linked to the North Carolina mainland by a ferry and a frequently broken bridge, is a community like Mitford, but the Episcopalian pastor has departed, leaving broken bridges among his parishioners and neighbors. The principal problem is that Jeffrey Tolson, the former choir director, has run off with the church organist, abandoning his wife, and children and failing to provide financial support for them. He is not welcomed by church members, especially wealthy businessman Otis Bragg and his wife, Marlene, who believe that their money should control church affairs. Although Father Kavanagh abandons his usual noncombative style to confront Tolson in great anger, what he wants is Tolson’s repentance and acceptance of responsibility, not his expulsion. Tolson, however, believes his acceptance in the church is obligatory because his family has been important in the church. Tolson’s arrogance is overwhelming. He cannot find work on the island, but he refuses to work on the mainland because the commuting would be inconvenient. He has no work, so he believes he has no financial obligation to his wife and children. The woman with whom he has eloped has left him. Busy condemning Jeffrey, church members have ignored the plight of the abandoned and penniless wife, Janette, who has lapsed into suicidal depression. Father Kavanagh faces down Bragg to obtain money for her hospitalization and, because relatives cannot take care of all of the children, takes the youngest, Jonathan Tolson, into his home, although the aging priest and his wife find it difficult to deal with a child of three. Janette has given up hope and any sense of connectedness. Kavanagh visits her and gently persists until he gets her to respond to him. Church members finally acknowledge their responsibility and how to address it: Since Janette is an accomplished seamstress, they place orders with her and offer her hope for an income.
Father Kavanagh also takes on the challenge of Morris Love, a Whitecap neighbor. Plagued with a series of physical disabilities including Tourette’s syndrome, mocked when he tried to attend school, and abandoned by most of his family, he has, under his late grandfather’s care, become a brilliant organist and composer. Nonetheless, he has closed himself in his house and refuses any human contact except that of a highly educated African American woman whose mother took care of Love until her death. The physically disabled and the victims of...
(The entire section is 1,090 words.)