Yes, there is a Mitford

Just north of Columbia, S.C., there is an unincorporated community called Mitford.

As far as author Jan Karon knows, this is the only place in North America that bears the name of the mythical North Carolina mountain town she has made so famous with her novels.

The real Mitford has a Baptist church and a barbecue joint and that's about it.

"Now what more do you need, I mean, if you really stop and think about it?", asked Karon, before letting loose with a Southern hoot and a cackle.

Yes indeed, all that the Mitford lady needs to tell most of her tales is a busy church, a gossipy diner and the people who frequent one or the other or both. She has taken these humble ingredients, slipped them into the structures of the British "village novel" and created a franchise that keeps taking small-town virtues into the uppity territory of the New York Times bestseller lists.

"Who would want to read books with no cussing', no murder, no mayhem and no sex? ... How can something so innocuous as these Mitford books sell 10 million copies?", asked Karon, speaking at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., just before the release of "In This Mountain," the seventh Mitford novel.

"This is what I think. I think there was a wide vein of readers out there who were just waiting for someone to write a book about them, about their dreams and their lives and their values. ... With Mitford, we look at the ordinary lives and see something extraordinary and dramatic and full of feeling and worthy to be observed."

The books revolve around Father Timothy Kavanagh, a shockingly orthodox Episcopal priest who is so behind the times that he even converts people to Christianity. Late in life, the shy bachelor marries Cynthia Coppersmith, a witty blond divorcee who moves to Mitford to create her award-winning books for children. The surroundings yield legions of colorful characters.

Karon began writing books in the early 1990s in the picturesque town of Blowing Rock, N.C., and other pieces of Mitford can be found in her life. When she was six she wanted to be a preacher. When she was 10 she wanted to be an author. Today she is an author who crafts the words spoken by one of America's most beloved preachers.

But the witty blond didn't start writing until mid-life, when she abandoned her career as an advertising executive and escaped to the mountains. The pain of a divorce and the sweetness of a newborn faith figure into her story as well.

Thus, her fiercely loyal readers keep asking: Is she Cynthia?

No, says Karon, Cynthia has better legs.

But the questions keep coming. Is Barnabas, the priest's scripture-friendly dog, going to die? Now that the Appalachian urchins Dooley Barlowe and Lace Turner have grown up, will they get married? What will Dooley do with the fortune the late Miss Sadie secretly left him? Where does Uncle Billy get his corny jokes? And what is livermush, anyway?

Then there is the ultimate question. In the new novel, Father Tim crashes into his own mortality and even survives a near-death experience. Karon has promised that the next Mitford book, "Light From Heaven," will end the series. Readers now ask: Is Father Tim going to die?

"No, he's not going to die," she said. "This is about his LIFE."

The books are relentlessly cheerful, even though Karon weaves in dark threads. There is schizophrenia and depression, greed and grinding poverty, child abuse and alcoholism, disease and death. But most of all there is faith, even though her books fly out of secular bookstores.

Karon said it would be impossible to edit out her beliefs. It would be like trying to filter a shot of brandy back out of a cup of coffee. Once they're mixed, they're mixed.

"Even if I never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, I can't hide from you who I am," she said. "In truth, the work that has no faith is for me not a whole work. It may be an amusing or credible or clever work, but not a whole work. Faith is a critical and urgent and necessary component of human wholeness."