This was another great find courtesy of my short audiobooks project. In this middle grade novel, a diverse community in a Cleveland neighborhood comes together to transform a vacant lot into a thriving community garden. The book is told in thirteen short chapters, each one from the perceptive of a different character.
In many ways, this book reads more like a fable than a novel, but it’s a hugely successful fable, in my opinion. Each short narrative is widely different, and every person comes to the garden for a different reason. It begins with Kim, a 10 year old Vietnamese American girl who decides to plant some bean seeds in the vacant lot. The garden grows from there. The characters include (among many others) a Mexican American teenager, an old white Jewish man, a British nurse, a twenty-something black man, and immigrants from India, Guatemala, Romania and Haiti.
Each character’s story is short, usually explaining how and why they got involved with the garden, and the how the garden has influenced their life. For some characters, the garden was a way to connect with their memories of the old country. For others, it was a balm for loneliness. For some it was a way to make money, a catalyst for a life change, or a place to sleep when they had nowhere else to go. Nothing much happens in the book, which is why I’d classify it a realist fairytale, or a fable. People grow food, talk to each other, watch the garden change over the course of a year. It’s quiet but surprisingly engaging, a collection of vignettes of urban life from many perspectives.
There were moments when these stories felt stereotypical or obvious, but honestly this didn’t bother me much. As a fable, it was beautiful. It was a simple celebration of people coming together from many different cultures and backgrounds to grow food and enjoy their neighborhood together. It wasn’t especially complicated or layered, but it wasn’t merely surface-level either. As a starting place for conversations about urban development, multiculturalism, immigration, race, poverty, and housing, especially for younger readers, I can see it’s merits. Though the overall message is one of hope, connection, and cultural celebration, there’s enough to the story to delve more deeply into some of the issues it touches on.
I can’t say enough good things about the audiobook. It’s narrated by a full cast, and every narrator was fantastic. Hearing so many different voices brought the characters to life in a way I don’t think reading this book in print would have done. For me, it was a purely enjoyable hour and a half. As a farmer-turned-gardener, I especially loved hearing about all the different vegetables and flowers that people grew in the garden, and the beautiful descriptions of growing things.
I don’t always love books like this, where the story is obviously written in order to teach a lesson and illuminate something, but in this case, I found it both heartwarming and entertaining.