Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Jan Karon’s Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good is as charming and bright as any book in her Mitford/Father Tim series, and a welcome return to Mitford after Karon’s nine-year hiatus. As with the previous Mitford books, I delighted in every page and found Somewhere Safe a hard to put down. Even as I read well past my bedtime, I kept telling myself to slow down. Savor it. Treat it like a box of homemade fudge. Make it last. Despite such admonitions, I gobbled it up in much the same way I’d read a fast-paced thriller.
Why? It’s not as if there is any who-done-it mystery or cliff-hangers in this or in any of Karon’s books. I’d even be hard-pressed to explain exactly what the plot here really is. Will retired Episcopal priest Father Tim find something useful and meaningful to fill his days? Will Dooley and Lace ever get engaged? Will angry wild-child Sammy straighten up? Will Fancy’s sister find a beau? Will Coot learn to read? Will Esther Cunningham run for mayor again? And as Mitford’s newspaper, the Muse, queries: “Does Mitford still take care of its own?”
Faithful readers of Karon’s books—of which I am one—will know instantly the answer to most of these questions.
So, if there is no urgent plot tension per se, why gobble up this book? What makes it so hard to put down and gives it that irresistible quality? Why do millions of her fans put Karon’s books on the bestseller list time after time?
In part because of the writing itself. Karon is a gifted author who deftly structures her stories with a wry sense of humor and smooth, straight-on sentences.
In part because of the charm of quirky characters in a sweet milieu doing these all-so-human things. How can a reader not love Father Tim, after all?
In part because of the delightfully interwoven little tales, in which the characters’ foibles become something like a plot.
And in part because Somewhere Safe, like Karon’s other Mitford books, is not so much a box of fudge as it is a big, delicious casserole of macaroni and cheese. Not the orange stuff from a box, but the real kind—like my father-in-law used to bake with eggs and five different types of cheese and a real chef’s delight in the way his family made short work of the dish.
Yes, it is because Karon’s Mitford world makes me, and I dare say her other fans, feel like that macaroni and cheese would make us feel: warm, well-fed, safe, satisfied.
In other words, Karon writes the ultimate comfort book. Like the character Cynthia, we too want to be someplace safe, and Karon takes us there. In a world where videos of real people getting beheaded play on YouTube, Karon’s ability to sooth her readers with this sweet, gentle book is a valuable gift.
That said, let’s talk about Someplace Safe and the Mitford/Father Tim series for a bit. For the reader unfamiliar with this series, Karon sets her tales of ordinary people doing ordinary things with extraordinary results in Mitford, a small town in the North Carolina mountains that is often compared to Mayberry. Mitford is the town many of us want to retire to at some point: safe, friendly, beautiful, with enough eccentric folks to keep us from feeling bored and enough well-meaning, nosey folks to keep us from being lonesome. Esther, the retired mayor, once saw to it that the big box stores did not come to town. So, the Happy Endings Bookstore, Wanda’s Feel Good Café, the Sweet Stuff Bakery, Fancy’s beauty salon with its new spray-tan booth, and other small businesses continue opening their doors on the town’s streets. The newspaper is replete with typos and nonsense and the lead story on any day might be that Father Tim took his dog and his adopted son for a ride through town in his new pickup truck. No serial killers lurk behind the church doors and crime tends toward the rebellious teen who steals a pool cue, then crashes the car he “borrowed” for a joyride.
The main characters are Father Tim Kavanagh and his wife Cynthia. When the series began back in 1994 with At Home in Mitford, Father Tim was the bachelor priest at The Lord’s Chapel Episcopal Church and Cynthia was his lovely and talented, but somewhat sad, next door neighbor. In the first Mitford book, Father Tim, sixty-something and lonely, takes in a big, stray dog and a near-feral stray boy. Over the next few books, he falls in love with and marries Cynthia, all the while civilizing the stray boy and dog.
That stray boy, Dooley, returns in Somewhere Safe, wrestling with college and love. Barnabas, the dog, showing his age, struggles with the stairs but remains faithful and watchful. Cynthia, battling failing eye-sight, continues to write her well-loved children’s books and tries to raise five million dollars for the local children’s hospital. Father Tim, seventy-something now, and retired from The Lord’s Chapel, is beset with a sense of uselessness even as he wrestles with the opportunity to return to the pulpit at The Lord’s Chapel. But when the owner of Happy Endings Bookstore is put to bed with a difficult pregnancy, Father Tim finds a new kind of pulpit in helping to run the bookstore. A bumbling newspaper reporter on The Muse becomes a thorn in the side of Father Tim, but she raises the central question of the book: Does Mitford still take care of its own?
The story opens with Cynthia and Father Tim visiting a recent widow on a quest to borrow something, but they find her mysteriously gone, her bedroom ransacked, and her front door wide open. Naturally they are concerned. Actions ensue. But this is Mitford, not Silence of the Lambs, and the resolution of this mystery is sweet and funny—and more than a bit embarrassing for Father Tim.
Which takes me back to the question of why we read and love Karon’s Mitford books so much. We read and love them precisely because we know the missing woman is really someplace safe, and with someone good—or will be before the book ends. We know that the missing widow is not going to be found chained and dead in her basement, but that a perfectly satisfying explanation will eventually be revealed, and that, more than likely, we’ll get a chuckle somewhere along the way to the resolution.
Comfort food in a book, you see.
But there’s more than just comfort in Karon’s books. In another tense moment, Father Tim searches in the dark woods for the wayward new priest at Lord’s Chapel, and is led by God to find him, near death, in the nick of time. After the wayward priest is airlifted to a big-city hospital, this priest and his tawdry behavior create the occasion for Karon to do something she does in each book, and with a good deal of tenderness and grace.
Make no mistake, these are books with a Christian theme, and each one has that moment when Karon witnesses by having Father Tim lead a character to accept Christ, or to re-accept Christ. The prayer is short, but intensely felt.
Thank you, God, for loving me and 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 entire life over to you.
Which leads me to a final question. Could a non-Christian enjoy reading these books, or more particularly reading Someplace Safe with Someone Good?
I honestly believe the answer is yes, but when I scoured the Internet for a reader’s review that might address this question from a non-Christian point of view, I found instead some people who wrote that Karon’s books led them to accept Christ into their lives.
What, finally, could be a stronger testament than that to the strength and beauty of these simple yet charming stories of people going about their lives and helping and praying and loving one another as they do so?
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