The Trees, Conrad Richter

The Trees is the first book in Richter’s The Awakening Land Trilogy. So technically it is set before gardening in the lonely world of the Northwest Territory. Before settlers could even think of planting a garden they had to deal with the endless trees. This is what fifteen year old Sayward Luckett saw when her father, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, took the family west to Ohio in the last years of the eighteenth century.

“For a moment Sayward reckoned that their father had fetched them unbeknownst to the western ocean and what lay beneath was the late sun glittering on green-black water. Then she saw that what they looked down on was a dark, illimitable expanse of wilderness. It was a sea of solid treetops broken only by some gash where deep beneath the foliage an unknown stream made its way. As far as the eye could reach, this lonely forest sea rolled on and on till its faint blue billows broke against an incredibly distant horizon.”

This was the beginning of the story of The Trees. The new country had no money to pay a veteran like Worth Luckett. He was given script that could go toward land in the territory west of the Allegheny Mountains.

 By the end of this volume Sayward marveled at a new sight:

“It was no ordinary day when the wild ground gave birth to its first tame crop. The wind stood off. The clouds hung like summer. The tender sky came right down in the clearing, softening everything with a veil finer than spider skeins. A little ways there in the woods, Sayward knew the air still hung chill and dim. But here in the clearing, the four sides of the forest held summer in like the banks of a pond. Flies and beetles hummed in the bright warmth. The soil breathed up a sweet rank smell of sprouting and growing. And here and yonder the first tiny green shoots of the baby corn had pushed overnight through the black ground. You could just make out the faint, mortal young rows bending around the stumps.”

By the end of The Trees, Sayward has lost her mother to illness, her littlest sister, Sulie, has disappeared without a trace in the forest, her father, with itchy feet, has taken off into the woods, another sister has run off with the husband of her third sister. Sayward doggedly keeps what’s left together. That is her young brother and her abandoned sister. The two other volumes of the trilogy, The Fields and The Town, follow Sayward into old age.

Richter has said the secret to a good story is keep your characters in trouble. He gives Sayward a wagonload of trouble and she meets it all with uncommon strength of character. In the reader she elicits nothing but admiration. Following her to the end of The Trees only spurs one on to opening the next volume. One feels compelled to witness Sayward’s journey through the rest of her pioneer life.

This is historical fiction at its best. Richter employs the dialect, views and prejudices of the time. Vicious, stomach-turning cruelty takes place among pioneers and Indians alike. Kindness and natural beauty are also part of the isolated life of the Northwest Territory.

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valerie Perrin

The mark of enduring fiction comes after the last page is turned. It’s when the reader’s mind keeps returning to the characters because they have become cherished friends.

Violette Toussaint is one such character. A foundling, as a child she forever tried to be good so a foster family would love her. She finally found that unconditional love in her daughter, Leonine, but never in her disastrous marriage to Philippe.

The novel roams back and forth in time and character point of view, so there is a long wait to find out what actually happened to Leonine and how such a complexity of characters and circumstances contributed to her loss.

At the beginning of their marriage Philippe and Violette are level crossing guards. They live by the train schedule as they must manually lower the barrier to prevent cars from crossing the tracks in front of trains. In reality, Violette does all the work and Philippe rides away on his motorcycle to mistresses far and wide.

When their level crossing is the very last one in France to be updated to automatic closure, Philippe and Violette must look for another source of income. At that point Leonine is no longer with them.

Violette finds the perfect job for them complete with a cottage. Philippe reluctantly accompanies her to become the cemetery keepers at Brancion-en-Chalon cemetery in Burgundy. It’s the perfect place for Violette as she throws herself into it. She keeps meticulous records of every funeral, the testimonies, those in attendance and the weather. She cares for each grave, planting trees and flowers and welcoming visitors with tea and cakes or something stronger if required.

As the story opens Violette has been the cemetery keeper for 20 years and Philippe has been a missing person of interest for 19 years. Her job has brought her satisfaction and happiness.

“I smooth rose cream over my hands. I spend hours with my fingers in the earth, gardening. I have to protect them. I like to have lovely hands. It’s been years now since I stopped biting my nails.”

Violette explains in detail her gardening duties.

“In April, I put ladybird larvae on my rosebushes, and on those of the deceased, to combat greenfly. I’m the one who places the ladybirds, one by one, with a little paintbrush, on the plants. It’s as though I repainted my garden in the spring. As if I planted stairways between earth and sky. I don’t believe in phantoms or ghosts, but I do believe in ladybirds….Placing my ladybirds, one by one, keeps me busy for ten days, if I do only that. If there’s no funeral in the meantime. Putting them on the rosebushes feels like opening the doors to the sun, letting it in over my cemetery. It’s like giving it permission. A permit. That doesn’t stop anyone from dying during the month of April, or from visiting me.”

Violette has a quirky side. She is not above donning a sheet and riding a unicycle through the night to scare the wits out of teenagers drinking beer on her premises. She wears dark clothes on the outside and beautiful bright clothes underneath. In the face of life’s tragedies she is a joyful person.

“Life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage..”

At the end of this beautiful novel I am seriously considering becoming a cemetery keeper.

Good Women, Jane Stevenson

Good Women is a trilogy of novellas about three good women if you broaden the concept of ‘good women’. First is “Light My Fire” about a passionate love affair headed for a quite comic disaster. In the second, “Walking with Angels,” a middle-aged housewife gets into trouble after angels befriend her. The third, “Garden Guerrillas” is of the garden-friendly variety.

Alice is a widow with a married son, David. When her husband, Geoff, was alive he convinced her to put their Kew Gardens three story, Georgian home in a trust with the four of them as beneficiaries. Their posh part of London over the years had become very valuable real estate and he wanted to save on death taxes.

 So, here she is, one old woman with a beloved garden living in a large home while David and his wife, Karen, make do at a much less prestigious address.  Son and wife come up with the idea that Alice is no longer able to properly care of her home and garden. Better that they should have it and Alice graduate to a one bedroom with no garden. Of course she could come over and help Karen with the garden. As trustees they have the power to forcibly remove her.

How that idea infuriates Alice. How dare they. She never liked her pushy daughter-in-law anyway and David is spineless.

Suddenly Alice, who spent her life catering to other’s needs, finds the grit to look after her own interests.  It is her garden that got her hackles standing stiff.

“None of them seemed to have the faintest realization that the garden was mine. Not just something that had happened, but my creation, a work of art, and not the automatic result of existing on Kew Green. And as for David’s luckless suggestion that I might keep myself busy working as her unpaid gardener … ! Words absolutely and definitively fail me!

 Karen particularly appalls her:

“She seemed to think that it all just happened like that. Didn’t she know I spent hours and hours thinking and planning, quite apart from the hours I spent weeding and pruning and trimming and deadheading? A garden can’t be made to stand still, plants go from too small to too big, you have to keep thinking and moving stuff around, or it starts going wrong.”

Alice’s deep knowledge of plants suddenly sparks a delicious idea to pay them back.

“It was an established, mature garden; all the architecture, the box pyramids and so forth, was in situ and in excellent condition and the shrubs and trees were full-size. It wouldn’t be as nice as if I was hovering over it on a daily basis, but even with a pretty conservative programme of weeding and sorting out, it would coast on for quite a while looking fine, by most standards. It was then that a temptation came to me, in the form of a little voice which whispered, ‘And what if it wasn’t quite that easy?’”

Angry Alice for the first time in her life becomes an anti-gardener. She starts totaling up the plants that would turn her garden gradually and surreptitiously into a jungle. Lythrum salicaria would grow half an inch a day, Phyllostachys aurea travels by underground rhizomes, rapidly invading anywhere, Polygonum cuspidatum goes eight feet down and eighteen feet from the parent. Pueraria montana  strangles and smothers other plants in its way. There were many garden gangsters Alice could hire. Karen would be well out of her depth. These green molesters could go so far as damaging a neighbor’s property.

With that thought in mind, Alice contacts Garden Gorilla Nursery which specializes in tough plants for difficult sites. There, Alice finds her marauders and an old friend from her single, Bohemian days.

On the way she discovers her true self and her true gardening philosophy:

“Gardening is a passionate business, but not sentimental. You can love and cherish a tree for twenty years, but if you detect symptoms of the dreaded honey fungus, you know that even if it looks just as beautiful as it did yesterday, it’s actually dead. Your feelings about it have to change, because you have to get it out of there in order to protect everything else. That was more or less how I felt about the garden as a whole. The plants from Alston were lying low, like true garden guerillas, they were flourishing and digging themselves in, but they didn’t look like anything out of the way. Only I knew that they were the seeds of future destruction.”

Finding Jane Stevenson is a true literary and garden gift.

Candide, Voltaire

“Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes,” Chico Marx said in the 1933 movie, Duck Soup. Voltaire was way ahead of him when he published his short, comic French satire in 1759.

Candide, an innocent young man, has been taught by Professor Pangloss, an authority on metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology, that the world is the best it can be and optimism is the way to go. It is the Age of Enlightenment.

Abruptly at the beginning of the novel, Candide is banished from his life of pleasure in a Westphalian castle by Baron von Thunder-ten-Tronckh. The Baron caught Candide kissing his plump and desirable daughter, Cunegonde. He immediately chases him from the castle with great kicks on the backside.

Thus begins Candide’s world travels with one objective – to get back to the love of his life, beautiful Cunegonde. He is conscripted into the Bulgarian military, endures shipwreck and earthquake in Portugal, wanders through the Spanish Inquisition, meets the Jesuits of Paraguay, is given great treasure in El Dorado, travels to Surinam, Japan and around the Cape of Good Hope on his way to Italy, France and England. He makes it to Constantinople and finally to Transylvania where he rescues Cunegonde from slavery. She is no longer beautiful.

 In his painful but hilarious travels, Candide meets another philosopher, Martin, whom he asks:

“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred each other as they do to-day, that they have always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates, brigands, idiots, thieves, scoundrels, gluttons, drunkards, misers, envious, ambitious, bloody-minded, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools?”

“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?”

“Yes, without a doubt,” said Candide.

“Well, then,” said Martin, “If hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men may have changed theirs?”

After very bad experiences in France, Candide and Martin are on their way to England. Candide once again asks Martin’s opinion:

“You know England? Are they as foolish there as in France?”

“It is another kind of folly,” said Martin. “You know that these two nations are at war for a few acres of snow in Canada, that they spend over this beautiful war much more than Canada is worth. To tell you exactly, whether there are more people fit to send to a madhouse in one country than the other, is what my imperfect intelligence will not permit. I only know in general that the people we are going to see are very atrabilious.”

The very last sentence in this little book is “we must cultivate our garden.” After his mountain of troubles traversing the world, Candide admits working a garden is the only worthwhile activity for mankind. He reaches this conclusion after speaking to an old man in Turkey.

“You must have a vast and magnificent estate,” said Candide to the Turk.

“I have only twenty acres,” replied the old man; “I and my children cultivate them; our labour preserves us from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want.”

The Last Garden in England, Julia Kelly

Five women from three different eras are tied together by one beautiful garden.

 In 1907 Venetia Smith,  garden designer, is hired to create a series of garden rooms for an elegant country estate, Highbury House, owned by a newly rich couple who seek to impress.

 They want “a garden imbued with elegance and ambition, one that will look as though it had been in the family for years rather than being a new acquisition funded by the recent inheritance of his soap fortune.”

 In 1944 Highbury House is conscripted by the government to serve as a convalescent hospital. Land girl, Beth Pelly, cook, Stella Adderton and mistress of the house, Lady Diana Symonds are all intertwined in the war effort and the heartbreaking events of the war.

In 2021 Emma Lovell is hired to restore the neglected Highbury House gardens to their former glory. As a business owner she struggles to stay above water and the commission to restore these sumptuous garden rooms is a plum that she must not let go of. She must also shake off the doubts her mother has about her choice of career.

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the five story lines in the book especially since three of the women are living in the house at the same time. That is the 1944 year of World War II. The mistress, Diana, is mourning the loss of her husband, the orphaned land girl, Beth, is anxious to settle where people care for her and a longtime servant, Stella,  aches to get away from the strict class structure of the estate. 1907 and 1944 include secrets that are left to the 2021 garden restorer, Emma, to discover.

This historical romance explores the social constraints women faced in all three eras and their unique solutions to surmounting them. Along the way the author provides numerous depictions of bountiful garden room designs.

This is Venetia’s plan for the tea and the  lovers’ gardens:

“I wanted to shock a visitor walking from the calming, feminine plantings of pale purple heliotrope, light pink echinacea, and creamy peonies into a room almost obscene with color. Rich red roses, deep purple salvia, and the red flowering spikes of persicaria, Banana plants, Japanese maples, dahlias, tulips – I wanted it to make people gasp.”

In her author’s note Julia Kelly writes:

“I believe that much like books, gardens are organic, unpredictable things, revealing their beauty how and when they choose. It’s up to us to remember to pause and enjoy that beauty every day.”

When we can’t enjoy walking in a garden, reading descriptions of well -planned gardens can be a pleasant substitute and a fount of ideas for our own gardens.