Grace Land

Mitford's Favorite Father Comes Home

No use looking for Mitford, North Carolina. It isn't on any map. But it does exist as the fictional town made famous in 1996 in At Home in Mitford by novelist Jan Karon. Made famous as well: Mitford's favorite father, Father Timothy Andrew Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest.

Fifteen Mitford books later — that's 30 million copies sold, including a Mitford cookbook — Karon is back with a new novel, but Mitford, North Carolina, hardly figures. Father Kavanagh does — center stage. So too Holly Springs, Mississippi, Kavanagh's hometown and the setting for Home to Holly Springs (Viking). No need looking for Holly Springs on any map, however. From Memphis, it's an easy 40 miles southeast on Highway 78. It's a life-changing journey, though, for Kavanagh, age 70, who hasn't been home in over 38 years. >>>

When Home to Holly Springs opens, Kavanagh's got a mystery on his hands. A note has arrived that states simply, "Come home." No explanation. No signature. No return address. To Cynthia, Kavanagh's wife, the handwriting looks as if it came from "another era." It looks to her "genteel." Must be from Peggy Cramer, a girl from a wealthy cotton family whom Kavanagh came close to marrying, Cynthia tells her husband. Or maybe it's from Jessica Raney, Cynthia says, the girl who adored Tim Kavanagh when the two were growing up.

"You're nuts," Kavanagh tells Cynthia. But Cynthia isn't nuts. She's got the no-nonsense eye of a writer. "We could make a whole book," she says, "out of what lies behind these two little words." And that's just what Jan Karon has done. But forget Father Kavanagh for the moment. What's Jan Karon doing in Holly Springs?

As Karon explains in her dedication to Home to Holly Springs, when she started the Mitford series, she knew her main character, Father Kavanagh, was a Southerner by his speech, by his behavior, and by what she calls his "personal affinities." But where was he from exactly? Karon spread a map on the floor and eliminated every Southern state except one: Mississippi. All she needed then was a place name, something "with music in it." Holly Springs sounded good. But she waited a good 10 years to visit the town and do her homework. What she found there surprised her — "something rare and wondrous": "people who value their deep connections and shared history, and are willing to forgive each other their trespasses." And she had to agree with the words of another: "Mississippi isn't a state, it's a family."

And so it is, in black and white, in Home to Holly Springs. After only a few days back in town, Kavanagh, on sedatives in a Memphis hospital, is telling a nurse that he has a black brother who's a retired train conductor, a white brother who operates a car service in Memphis, another white brother (named Theophilus — "T" for short) who's working on a cure for baldness (main ingredient: kudzu), another white brother who's cooked for presidents, movie stars, tycoons ("you name it"), another black brother who operates a produce stand by the side of the road, and a black sister (or is she more like a mother?) who's "gaining on ninety, but she can still see a chigger crawling on a blackberry." As for Cynthia, a groggy Kavanagh tells the nurse that she's his wife and she's his sister — "in Christ, of course." To which Kavanagh's unflappable nurse answers: "Very interesting family. Large."

And so it is . . . and complicated. None more complicated than Kavanagh's father, Matthew, a man made of stern stuff. Fishing as a pastime for young Timothy, who otherwise busies himself reading from (and memorizing out of) The Oxford Book of English Poets? "Promotes sloth," according to Matthew Kavanagh, who may or may not be guilty of pushing a man out of his law office and down a flight of stairs, thus crippling that man for life. But it's Grandpa Kavanagh (a "dreadful old reprobate!" in the words of a family member) who beats all – figuratively and literally when he publicly horsewhipped 13-year-old Matthew, breaking the poor boy's leg in the process, damaging him, we learn, for life.

That whipping isn't news to Father Kavanagh. His kind maternal grandfather, Yancey Howard, former pastor at Holly Spring's First Baptist Church, has told him as much. The bigger question: how that whipping explains Matthew Kavanagh's fearsome nature and why his lovely wife Madelaine (a woman whose green thumb made her the star attraction at the annual Holly Springs garden tour) put up with it. And where is Peggy, the Kavanagh's beloved maid and cook? Jan Karon knows. Father Kavanagh doesn't. Until he ventures home to Holly Springs.

That's where he meets a whole host of the lost and found, not the least of them Luola Dabney Randolph Lewis, a colorful crone with a sizable mean streak. (Or is it the fault of her medication?) That's where he visits Hill Crest Cemetery, Tyson Drug, and Booker Hardware for a taste, once more, of the sights and sounds of the Deep South. And that's where he comes to face — literally, memorably — with anybody who had a part to play in Father Kavanagh's early life. The number of these coincidental run-ins over the course of two days? Countless. The layer of sentimentality lacing too many of these conversations? Thick. The talk of God's grace? Top-heavy.

Some readers will find all of this comforting. Others, excruciating. But no arguing with Jan Karon's storytelling ability: her skill at juggling time frames; her piece-meal method of delaying then delivering key plot points; her respect for these characters and affection for this landscape, which has her smack-dab in Faulkner territory — an impossible act for any author to follow but an easier path for Father Timothy Kavanagh, who, now that he's been back to Holly Springs, now that he's performed a life-saving act for a brother he never knew he had, has tickets in hand — a gift from a childhood buddy — to Graceland.

Shelf Life

Fire codes: In 1874, the city of Memphis hired its first black firefighters: Joseph Luster, Peter Mitchell, and Andrew T. Trigg. They performed routine duties in the firehouse. They acted as horsemen for a hand-drawn and hand-operated pump. But Chief Michael McFadden refused to officially recognize them. They served for only eight days and never, in fact, fought a fire.

Flash forward 80 years. Robert J. Crawford Sr. knew that his life as a fireman was going to be hazardous work. But in 1955, he was among the first dozen black men accepted into the Memphis Fire Department's training program, and he knew he had what it took. He'd been a scrappy but determined kid growing up on a series of dead-end streets in South Memphis in the 1930s. He'd been a responsible delivery boy in the grocery store owned by Joseph Garbarini Sr., and when Garbarini offered to pay Crawford's way at the school run by St. Augustine Catholic Church, he'd been a respected student and dependable altar boy. The Army taught Crawford diesel mechanics, but when he returned from Korea, his hometown taught him something else: segregation as he'd never known it.

As a working fireman, though, Crawford did his job — several jobs, including shining the shoes of his white lieutenant at Fire Station #8 at the corner of Manassas and Crump Boulevard. And over the next several decades he worked hard to challenge the entrenched opposition to an African American occupying the ranks of the city's fire department. That opposition was a combination of the good-old-boy network and racism pure and simple. But Crawford showed his skills as a firefighter and as a leader. He demanded recognition. He served in the local chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. And, in time, he went from being the city's first black fire battalion chief to deputy chief to deputy director.

The story that Crawford tells (along with wife Delores) is called Black Fire: Portrait of a Black Memphis Firefighter (The History Press). What it lacks in professional polish it more than makes up for as another necessary chapter in the ongoing story that is Memphis race relations, its labor relations, its politics, and the willingness of its citizens to make fair all three. M

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