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Kavanaugh returns

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Even the title of Jan Karon's new novel is comforting: "Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good" (Putnam, Sep. 2, $27.95).

Nine years ago Karon announced she was ending her popular series about the small Blue Ridge Mountains town of Mitford with the publication of the ninth book in the series. Faithful readers mourned, having become fast friends over the years with Episcopal priest Tim Kavanaugh, his wife Cynthia, adopted son Dooley and the memorable population of Mitford.

"My readers were wild to go back to Mitford," writes Karon. "Thankfully, I was curious myself. What was going on in the lives of characters I had lived with for twenty years? I was occasionally homesick for the place."

Thus in September Karon brings readers back to Mitford with now-70-years-old Kavanaugh, his family and the folks who people Mitford. Now retired, Kavanaugh is "trying to hammer out what retirement is for" and be just another town resident instead of the village priest.

Kavanaugh finds plenty of pastoral problems in his own family. Dooley is engaged but is struggling to understand how to deal with an unhappy past. Dooley's brother Sam is always in trouble because he is angry about his birth mother's abandonment. Somehow Kavanaugh must help his family weather these challenges.

The townspeople still turn to him for ministerial comfort. Bookstore owner Hope Murphy needs him to guide her through an unhealthy pregnancy. Others in the town call on him for the sage advice they have been missing.

Perhaps worst of all, Kavanaugh must decide whether to accept a call to yet another parish. Does he want to uproot again, taking on full priestly duties at his age? Or is it time for him to enjoy the rest of his life in the "small town that takes care of its own" and has welcomed him back?

When the Kavanaughs were courting, they wrote letters to each other. On their ninth anniversary, Cynthia said she wanted to revive the practice. In her first letter, she told him that since childhood she had "longed for somewhere safe with somebody good." That's where Karon found what she calls "the perfect title that distills the meaning of 400 pages into a single line."

Karon's style is unusual in a fast-paced society overly obsessed with sex and violence. Her language is clean, her story lines about simple people with believable lives and deep faith. She writes, "...life can be full of the possible, the joyful, the soulful, the kind, the divine." Fortunately for readers she has chosen to focus most of her work on that side.

This does not mean Karon's work is treacle. Far from it. She understands and writes about death, human pains and shortcomings, grief and other deep and often dark emotions. Yet she refuses to ever give up hope.

For her, Mitford is an answet to the dark sides of contemporary America. "Small towns are about connection. Modern life is about loss of connection."

She invites you, then, to return to Mitford and -- even if only briefly -- connect to real people who do care greatly about everyone they meet.

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