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Books by
Jan Karon


IN THE COMPANY OF OTHERS:
A Father Tim Novel


HOME TO HOLLY SPRINGS:
The First of the Father Tim Novels


LIGHT FROM HEAVEN

JAN KARON'S MITFORD COOKBOOK & KITCHEN READER

SHEPHERDS ABIDING:
A Mitford Christmas Story


ESTHER'S GIFT:
A Mitford Christmas Story


THE MITFORD YEARS SERIES Reading Group Guides

Book I: AT HOME IN MITFORD

Book II: A LIGHT IN THE WINDOW

Book III: THESE HIGH, GREEN HILLS

Book IV: OUT TO CANAAN

Book V: A NEW SONG

Book VI: A COMMON LIFE

Book VII: IN THIS MOUNTAIN

Book VIII: SHEPHERDS ABIDING


Christmas Roundup


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SHEPHERDS ABIDING: A Mitford Christmas Story
Jan Karon
Penguin
Fiction
ISBN: 0142004855

Author Talk -- August 2004
Reading Group Guide

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 desolating accident.

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, Penguin will publish THE MITFORD COOKBOOK AND KITCHEN READER next year; then the last novel in the Mitford series, LIGHT FROM HEAVEN, in 2005.

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 (phrelanzer@aol.com)

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