Saturday, November 4, 2006

Dorsetville = Mitford - Sappiness + Catholicism

by Katherine Valentine

Most people know of the books about Father Tim set in the tiny mountain town of Mitford by Jan Karon. Featuring a lovably eccentric crew of regular characters, they explore faith as Father Tim goes about ministering to his little Episcopalian flock through the trials and joys of daily life. However, they are something of a guilty pleasure for me as the level of sappiness is enough to put a diabetic into sugar shock and there is a definite air of unreality since every other person in town seems to have a lot of money tucked away ... so handy in case of emergencies. This doesn't keep me from reading these books as I have grown quite fond of Father Tim and environs. It simply propels me to seek out possible alternatives. (The first book in the Mitford series is At Home In Mitford.)

The Anchoress pointed me toward this book by Katherine Valentine as a Catholic alternative to the Mitford books. I was delighted and partway through the second chapter when Steven Riddle sounded a warning about the soundness of the Catholicism contained therein ... which he later retracted for reasons you can read here. His warning to remain vigilant was largely unnecessary for me. Expanding on Fr. B's wise advice in RCIA ("don't get your theology from movies or television") I quickly learned that one must be discerning about reading a new author no matter how "Catholic" the comments trumpeted on the book jacket. As a new Catholic I eagerly went to the bookstore and became more and more shocked as I looked over the books by Garry Wills, Sr. Joan Chittister, et al, and discovered that there was a loudly dissenting arm of the Church that I had struggled so much to enter in full faithfulness.

At any rate, I plucked this book from the "return to library" stack where I had deposited it upon reading Steven's first warning (I simply don't have time to spend reading junk) and began reading again. I am certainly glad that I did.

Set in the small town of Dorsetville, where residents have fallen on hard times since the wool mill closed, we see Father James struggling with a very modern problem. The bishop plans to close the church right after Easter because it can't support itself any more and has a huge burden of debt. This will leave the many elderly and needy parishioners without any nearby support. Meanwhile, we are introduced to locals with a variety of problems ranging from a teenager suspended from school because of computer hijinks to a young family fighting cancer.

Valentine's writing is less sentimental than Karon's and the characters, though with the requisite eccentric folks included, include many who are simply real people struggling with the same often overwhelming problems that many of us face. I particularly enjoyed the way that one woman found God's message of hope while praying in the church. It echoed the real life stories that I have heard time and again from trusted friends. Another point I appreciated is Valentine's inclusion of real angels at one point, as well as the reactions of the person who saw them. She is not afraid to use all the methods that God speaks to people in her work and it is handled quite well.

Valentine also painted a realistic scenario with the seemingly insurmountable plight of Father James in trying to figure out how to save the church or provide realistic alternatives for his flock. His realization that he has strayed from trust in God to trying to do everything himself is one that is echoed in various ways by other characters throughout the book. When reading Valentine's afterward and her reasons for writing the book it becomes even more understandable that that specific message is true to life.

However, I did look in vain for any mention of the one thing that sets a Catholic church and, indeed, the Catholic faith apart from others. There were a few mentions of the Mass but none that I could see of the Eucharist. When Father James reinstates morning Mass it is done to return the old folks' much needed routine and give them a sense of purpose in their lives. There is no mention of that touch of grace provided by receiving the Eucharist at the Mass. Similarly, when he goes to visit a cancer patient, Father James does not take him the Eucharist. He simply goes to visit and winds up cleaning the kitchen. And so it goes throughout the book. I realize this is straining at a gnat for some. However, all true Catholicism comes from that one central point which is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus present in the Eucharist. Any Catholics as devout as those portrayed would not ignore that fact even if it were to be portrayed in a fleeting thought. In this way, Valentine does lean more toward portraying the trappings of Catholicism (rosary, statues, etc.) in a sort of Episcopalianism as Steven Riddle mentioned.

The above mentioned problem is not at all reason to avoid the book. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed up much too late for several nights in a row, racing to see the conclusion. Valentine handles her plotlines and characters very well indeed. Before I finished I had requested the sequel from the library. Highly recommended.

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