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Jan Karon finds redemption in rural Virginia

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ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. -- Jan Karon is standing at her orchard fence, gazing out over a gently rolling meadow where a dozen sheep are grazing.

The scene is pastoral, a perfect backdrop for the author of the best-selling Mitford series, novels about a gentle-spirited Episcopal priest and his adventures with lively characters in a small town.

"This makes it all worthwhile," she says of the three years she has spent renovating the historic farm house and seven surrounding buildings here on her 109-acre farm. It's located near Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. John Grisham lives nearby.

This house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, "was worth saving," says Karon, 68. "Just like my books are about redemption, I wanted to redeem and restore a worthy property."

In her will, she's leaving it to her children's foundation, which gives gifts to children's organizations around the world. But in the meantime, she's enjoying living in the four-bedroom Federal-era brick house that once served as the heart of a 1,100-acre plantation.

A 'secret crush on Virginia'

Wearing jeans and a plaid blouse, Karon comes down the front steps to the driveway to greet her guests as they arrive. She offers coffee and tea and serves chicken salad for lunch, followed by vanilla ice cream and warm apple pie, made from apples grown on the farm.

Her home here is far different than her cozy cottage in Blowing Rock, N.C., where she lived for more than 15 years and wrote most of the Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford.

She had little privacy in Blowing Rock, where fans swarmed to see how closely it resembled Mitford. "My little house was right on the street, and people were always coming up and knocking on the door," says Karon, who is divorced and has a grown daughter.

She looked for a farm in the mountains of North Carolina but "nothing spoke to my heart," so she turned here because "I had a secret crush on Virginia."

The property spoke to her heart, but her head had second thoughts. "It needed a lot of work. It scared me so badly that it took me a year to make the decision to buy it."

The house was built in 1816 by a doctor, but "not much had been done to preserve the original fabric of the property. What I did is restore everything that had gone wrong for the last 200 years," she says.

The foundation was crumbling, so she had a new one built. Every time the contractors pulled off wallpaper, there was something "horrific" underneath, she says. The south wall of the house was leaning outward, and there were huge cracks in the plaster. But the bones of the house were good.

The floors are original, made of virgin heart pine. The elaborately carved moldings and ceilings were done by Italian artisans who lived in this area during Jefferson's day. The brightly polished handle and lock on the front door are made of Sheffield silver over copper, and Karon still has the original key. The bricks were made onsite when the plantation was built.

Two identically sized parlors now serve as the living room and the dining room. The walls of both are covered in a soft copper-colored fabric with the molding and trim painted a creamy white. The rooms each have large Aubusson rugs from the early 1820s. The dining room has a matching pair of antique sideboards.

The rooms are light-filled with triple-hung windows that are large enough to walk through to a large back porch that overlooks the sheep pasture. "These windows are thanks to Mr. Jefferson, who brought this idea from France," Karon says.

Comfort and joy

The coziest room in the house is the kitchen. Its wood-paneled walls and cabinets are finished an antique sage-green. In one corner is a large fireplace, built-in window seats, comfy French Bergere wing chairs and a gate-legged table. "I like to sit here and have a cup of tea," she says.

Even the basement had potential with its exposed brick walls, low wood-beamed ceilings and 7-foot-wide fireplace; Karon renovated it to look like an English tavern. "I wrote a lot of Light from Heaven here," she says of her new novel, the ninth and final book of the Mitford series. (It made its debut this week at No. 3 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list.)

Several of the outside buildings also have been restored, including the former outdoor kitchen, now a guest house. She still wants to finish a small chapel that she started building on the property, but first, she says, "I must write another book to pay for it."

This isn't a working farm, but Karon does have chickens, four dogs and 18 sheep, instead of horses, because sheep "are gentle, trusting and don't demand much."

She likes to take breaks from her writing to enjoy the peaceful view. "The land slows us down," she says. "It's hard to find a more beautiful image than landscape with sheep."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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