February 17, 2018

3 Winter Gardens

What is it about a winter garden that stirs the imagination? Perhaps it is the sense of buried hope and possibilities, or the stark beauty of things as they are. Perhaps it is the surprise of finding the soft, bright little face of a blossom, when all else is cold and gray.

[West side apple tree.]

In the winter, forms are exposed; structure laid bare. It's ideal for pruning most things, because you can see precisely what needs to go. There are no leaves or flowers to distract the eye or get in the way.

For a gardener, it takes work and a different perspective than the norm to design a winter garden. Instead of thinking about leaf form and colors and bloom times of blossoms, you must instead think about colorful stems, evergreens, structures and lines that would be accentuated by a covering of snow. Even hardscaping comes into play--how would a path or the gate lend itself to adding interest in the winter?

[Echinacea, or purple coneflowers, with a touch of frost.]

[Beautiful red stems of 'Arctic Fire' dogwood, or cornus.]

So it's intriguing to me that so many authors have taken this idea and incorporated into books. I don't just mean nonfiction to help gardeners incorporate winter interest into their landscape, either, but pages of novels listed on Goodreads with similar versions of this title. Here are two of them.

The Winter Garden, by Johanna Verweerd

3.5 stars: A thoughtful portrait of a woman coming to terms with her past.

When Ika Boerema receives a letter from her sister, to tell her that their mother is dying, she hardly knows what to do about it. She has distanced herself from her family for the past 15 years. Why on earth would Nelly expect her to come home now? And yet.... and yet. What if her mother had actually been the one asking for her to come? Even after all these years, she can't help but hope for some glimmer of love and acceptance from her mother.

She thought she had put her painful childhood behind her, but this letter brings it all back. She was the older sister, and always the scapegoat for every harsh word, stern rebuke, and raised hand. Her father couldn't stand the sight of her, it always seemed, and her mother's affections wavered greatly. Nelly was always the favorite--of them all, including Ika. She swore she would protect her little sister from whatever their dysfunctional family could throw at her. Somehow, though, it wasn't sweet Nelly that needed protecting, but Ika, and there wasn't anyone around to protect her most of the time.

So now. The letter. What to do? She finally decides she must return home, to deal with the pieces of her past the best she can and attempt a reconciliation with Nelly. In order to keep herself grounded in the present, in the life she has painstakingly created for herself over the years, she brings her current work project: designing a Winter Garden for the Plaza Hotel. She hopes it will be life preserver enough to keep her from drowning in the ocean of hurtful memories that will certainly surface as she returns.

* * * * *
This one was slow-moving. Entire worlds of nuance were embedded in every look, sigh, silence, and conversation. Liberally sprinkled with flashbacks, we got to know Ika the daughter and older sister before we got to know the Ika the woman very much. It was all about the characters and finding out what made them tick--in the past, and present.

Ika's mother was an interesting character; hard to understand. The daughter of a prominent minister, she had to endure a lifetime of disgrace when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps the weight of that shame was too much to carry. (Ika's full name was "Ikabod" meaning "shame"--named by the Grandfather.) There were Christian themes interwoven throughout the story, along with scriptures.

It wasn't all heavy and depressing. There were bright spots here and there. Ika's friendship with her boss, Simone, was one, as were her growing relationships with her sister, and the brother-in-law and nephews she had never met.

If you like character-driven books, this one should be right up your alley.

Incidentally, Ika's plans for the Winter Garden sounded completely lovely.

Content: Emotional, verbal, and some physical abuse toward Ika as a child.


Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah

4 stars

Meredith and Nina grew up together, both seeking for their mother's love and approval, and each ultimately giving up the search. Anya was just too cold, too unreachable--except to their father. There was much they didn't understand about their mother, and it didn't help that she was never one to talk.

With their father's death, things were brought to a head emotionally in the family. His deathbed request, that the girls listen to their mother's Russian fairytale--all the way to the end this time--seemed foolish and pointless. But as their mother tells the story; haltingly, and just a bit at a time; a strange thing happens: it starts to heal their relationships. As the girls begin to finally understand their mother, it changes their whole outlook. And their understanding and forgiveness may finally be what thaws her frozen heart.

* * * * *
Parts of this book were painful to read--perhaps because they were brought to life so well. Like the sisters, I was drawn into the "fairy tale" more and more each time it was told. As a mother, I imagined myself having to make the kinds of choices the Russian mothers had to make and wondering how I would have done it. You see, Anya was a mother in WWII Leningrad, during the siege on the city that blocked any food or supplies from coming in.

One part that really stuck with me was when the young mother must leave her children, ages 4 and 2, locked in their apartment alone & crying, while she and her mother went to wait in line for food for an indefinite period of time. She told her mother that it was impossible--she couldn't do it. And her mother said, "You will have to do many impossible things now." And she did.
Then it got to the point that even survival seemed impossible, yet somehow, she did that too.

I was first going to give this one 3 stars, but as I think back on it more, I'm upgrading it to 4.

(Reviewed on Goodreads March 2016.)

* * * * *

I guess you could say this post actually includes 4 winter gardens, since all but the first photo above were taken in Washington. I am working hard to add all kinds of beautiful plants to our home here in Utah, but it is definitely a process that takes some time.

Today felt like spring, and my daughter and I were able to spend some time in the afternoon digging out a new flowerbed in back. It's going to be a big one, so even with the progress we made there is still far to go. It felt so good to be out in the sunshine, though, that it was totally worth it!

We're supposed to get 6 inches of snow tomorrow, so it may be awhile before we can get back to that project again.

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