Successfully small: Jan Karon reaches masses with Mitford

It's a pristine October day, and over 400 people gather under a big white tent in Keene to discuss the future of small town America. No, it isn't concern for Keene or nearby Scottsville that has prompted the gathering. It is Mitford, a town that doesn't even exist.

Just because you can't find Mitford on a map, however, doesn't mean it's not real.

"A lot of people ask me if it's real," says town founder Jan Karon. "I always say yes because Mitford is real-­ if you keep your eyes open, your ears open, and most importantly, your heart open. Mitford is here today."

Cue audible sigh from audience.

What's going on?

It becomes easier to understand when you realize that Karon, 65, is a best-selling author, and that her popular Mitford series has introduced the world to the wholesome adventures of an affable reverend in a fictional small town. Karon's hero, Father Tim, is the anti-Jack Ryan, and the star of these gentle tales of hope and redemption.

Under the big white tent outside Christ Church in Keene, Karon regales her fans with stories of her own dark past (in what she calls the "deep ditch" of advertising) and the bliss of her present (she's a recent arrival in Scottsville). Never mind that she's a hugely beloved author whose books have sold over 10 million copies, or that her latest, In This Mountain, was #1 on the New York Times fiction list in June.

This is the kind of story that could have taken place in Mitford, where small miracles turn everyday lives around.

"I love the ordinary life because in their ordinariness there is something very extraordinary," Karon says. It's an appealing message to her audience of mostly older women, some of whom have traveled hundreds of miles to hear her speak.

"Who traveled the farthest to get here?" Karon asks early on, warming up the crowd. New York, Wisconsin, and Texas are contenders. "Your daughter," quips one audience member, motioning toward the woman in question, Candace Freeland, visiting from Hawaii.

Karon's effortless banter whips up the communal goodwill and reinforces the sense that we're all somehow really in Mitford.

While Mickie Malick doesn't get the signed copy of Karon's latest book for the farthest-traveling visitor, she says the four-and-a-half-hour drive from Federalsburg, Maryland, is still worth it.

"I thought to myself, 'You're not going to miss this opportunity,'" Malick says. "I feel like I know her through the books."

Virginia French, of Manassas, is a member of a Yahoo discussion group devoted to the Mitford series, but the books' appeal is something less technological. "I love the spirituality of it," she says. "I love the way [Father Tim] turns to the Lord. It just shows you can live a Christian life."

Unfortunately for Malick and French, the Mitford series is nearing its inevitable end. Karon has announced that the sixth and seventh books in the series, due out in the next couple of years, will be the last.

"The truth is, the story stops at a certain place, and I don't know any more," Karon says. She does have some solace for those who fear the end of the series will also be the end of their adored Father Tim.

"I always know the final paragraph of the book, and no, he doesn't die," Karon declares to cheers. Both Karon and her audience, then, are determined to keep the spirit of Mitford alive indefinitely.