oming Home to Harmony Jan Karon hit the motherlode of publishing when she tapped into a deeply felt yearning for small-town community and character. Since then, other writers have trod the path to small-town America, helping millions recapture (or reinvent) their memories of a simpler life that holds its own sweet rewards.

One of the latest and most successful to walk this road is Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister and best-selling author of three nonfiction books that have delighted and inspired hundreds of thousands of readers. The first of these, Front Porch Tales, grew out of essays Gulley wrote for his church newsletter. Gulley's stories were so inspiring and hilarious that some of his church members suggested he write a book. Front Porch Tales has since sold more than a quarter-million copies and spawned two sequels with more brief essays on the delights and challenges of small-town living: Home Town Tales and For Everything a Season.

Now Gulley is trying his hand at fiction, with this month's release of Home to Harmony (audio), in which the fictional town of Harmony, Indiana, hosts the biggest collection of crusty, lovable characters since James Herriott settled in Yorkshire.

"I wanted to write not only about the good that people do, but also about the funny messes we get ourselves into, Gulley says, "and about how, even in those moments, wonderful things can still happen. One of Gulley's favorite characters in Home to Harmony is Miriam Hodge, head elder of the town's Quaker meeting, and a woman of uncommon wisdom and grace. "It's hard for me to think of Miriam as a fictional character, Gulley admits. "I keep expecting to meet her any day now. Despite winning the author's affection, Miriam manages to get herself into some embarrassing scrapes. In one episode, the ladies of the Quaker meeting decide to make a quilt as a fund-raising project. When they hang the quilt in the meeting house and the sun hits it, the face of Jesus appears on the surface of the quilt. Mobs of people begin lining up to see the holy quilt, forcing Miriam to make a private confession to her minister: she had spilled coffee on the quilt, leaving a stain that resembled the face of Jesus. "That's not the Lord we've been seeing, Miriam admits, "that's Maxwell House. Miriam's minister is Sam Gardner, the book's narrator who, like Gulley himself, returns to live in his hometown after attending college and seminary. Gardner is offered a job when the town's Quaker pastor dies in an accident. ("Both his parents had died of heart problems, which he feared would happen to him, so he'd begun to jog and was hit by a truck. ) In an interview, the author displays the same wry humor and love of people that enliven his books. Appropriately enough, Gulley would fit right in as a resident of Mayberry, RFD, since he looks like a cross between Sheriff Andy Griffith and his deputy, Barney Fife. Gulley has Barney's wiry build, combined with Andy's wide grin and reassuring manner.

After a few minutes of conversation with the minister, you can see why his speeches and sermons have drawn many admirers. Gulley is charming, self-deprecating, and utterly sincere as he holds forth on the joys of living in Danville, Indiana a place where most of the 4,000 residents know one another. As a writer, he aims to capture this sense of intimacy and belonging in his books.

"I just wanted to tell the world about these wonderful people I know, Gulley says, "people I grew up with; people who taught me things. I really believe in people. I'm one of those rare and lucky individuals who has never been too disappointed by people. In that sense, I'm truly blessed. Home to Harmony is intended to be the first in a series, with the next entry, Searching for Harmony following the same characters through a series of crises and challenges. Through it all, Gulley says, his aim is "to gladden people's hearts. I've met so many people who've done that for me. Home to Harmony and the other books I write become the way I pay back what was given to me.

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