“I was on a book tour, and two young couples approached me and said, ‘We loved your books, they saved our marriage.’ Now, I don’t know how to do that. I couldn’t even save mine.”
So author Jan Karon told me on Oct. 30 on my radio show, and thus my interest was piqued even more. Which writer do you know who has saved a single marriage, much less two? Karon wasn’t boasting but responding to my question about an effect that Karon’s books have on people, one that, given Thursday’s holiday, I’ll call a Thanksgiving effect.
That Karon has sold tens of millions of novels is obvious to anyone who scans airport bookstores or knows anything about the publishing business. Mitford is the fictional North Carolina small town that is the setting for Karon’s books, the first one of which was published in 1994 when Karon was nearing 60. It and its 13 successors have sold north of 25 million copies. My wife has read every word of the Mitford books and is about to begin them a second time. They were my mother’s constant companion through her ultimately unsuccessful chemotherapy. Karon relayed to me as well that a Marine has told her his healing had been assisted by trips to Mitford.
The Mitford books are not thrillers, though they are pleasant page turners. They are empty of sex and violence, though they are full of crime and justice, deep love, pain and loss. And they are suffused with a simple faith — “Mere Christianity,” as C.S. Lewis would call it — that is fulsome but interwoven so as to be representative of the way that many people of faith actually live. Not preachy, but pitch perfect.
I hadn’t read any of Karon’s novels when she became available for interview. When I am traveling, my airplane nose is in a thriller, not in a small North Carolina village. Except during my last couple of trips, to Arizona and then Wisconsin. On those journeys and in between, I dove into “At Home in Mitford,” Karon’s first novel, and found there the secret to her success: graciousness and abhorrence of cruelty. It is remarkable, really, to swim through so much good humor and actual drama, gently but directly told, to find lives and loves and families described in detail, lives that pull on various “mystic chords of memory,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.
This week through the end of the year is of course the time when this “Mitford effect” is most likely to be found everywhere in its Thanksgiving garb, and not because of the books but because of the arrival of family, the cooking of turkey and pie, the unpacking of ornaments. Ritual kindnesses can and do promote the real things. We joke about Thanksgiving arguments and crazy uncles, but it actually is for the most part a day from which cruelty flees.
“I am loath to close,” Lincoln declared as he neared the end of his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every loving heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Our country in late 2018 needs a whole lot of those angels to make visits, across every bit of politics, from left to right. Mitford is a good place to begin to see what that might look like, how a Mitford effect might be good for everyone at every age. When we don’t have Thanksgiving prompts to assist us, you could take a trip to Mitford. I have become a prophet of “Mitford for men,” because we could also use reminders that cable news or talk-radio-induced agitation is not actually how the vast, vast majority of Americans live. Try it.