I don't plant flowers or maintain a garden. My genes don't allow it. My mom would be the first to admit that neither she nor the rest of us have green thumbs. In her thoughtful and affecting debut, memoirist Carol Wall deftly introduces the polar opposite of people like me: Giles Owita, a Kenyan expatriate living in Virginia, who could conceivably be called a Grand Master of Gardening. He takes good care of every aspect of gardens because, as he puts it, "Every yard must have its flowers."
Wall, who is also a cancer fighter, doesn't believe in Owita's green philosophy. Flowers remind her of death - her sister Barbara, a Down syndrome baby, died of heart failure at the age of two and Wall recalls putting flowers on Barbara's grave.
Wall's yard has "muddy splotches in the midst of thinning grass, shrubbery turned brown or wild and out of control, the whole yard littered with twigs blown by the wind, horrifying whorls of crabgrass." "It looked shabby," she writes, "And this was what our neighbors had as their view every day." She decides that it's time to do something about it, and notices that her neighbor Sarah's yard, looks worlds better than her own. Wall wants to know who is responsible for such gently blooming beauty. That would be Sarah's part-time colleague at the Garden Shoppe, Mister Owita, who oversees many gardens and also works part-time at the Foodland supermarket, where Wall regularly shops.
Like the state of the shabby Vermont house that Lynn Darling goes home to in her memoir Out of the Woods, Wall's yard is symbolic of a life shaken up constantly. She not only wants her yard to look nicer than it has in years, but is also looking to smooth out her life in between cancer treatments and a host of related procedures. This beautiful memoir is not only about Mister Owita's varied and touching gardening lessons, but it also shows how Wall's burgeoning garden plays an integral part in helping her get through the endless treatments.
As the title implies, Wall's memoir is also about Mister Owita, who faces life's hardships - including the arduous process of bringing his firstborn to the United States from Kenya - with kindness. At one point, while Owita expertly trims her river birch tree, Wall reads to him from a book about tree-trimming. Later, she is deeply embarrassed when Sarah shares that Owita has a PhD in horticulture from Virginia Tech. Wall insists that he should be called "Doctor," but she learns that Owita had been against such appellations from the start. There is an admirable humility about the man who immeasurably boosts the lives of others just through his work.
In Wall's talented hands, time is a fleeting concept as wispy as dandelions dancing in the wind -- a result of many struggles with cancer. Eight months here, a year there, pass with a whisper in these pages. It's not that Wall minimizes her experiences, but rather makes them more powerful by treating them as routine matters. She also faces moving her parents into an assisted living facility at one point, her father increasingly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease.
Gardening in its many forms requires patience. Carol Wall's garden doesn't transform into a colorful, blossoming maze of delightful flowers and trees overnight. Under Giles Owita's tutelage, we learn along with her that what we need most in our lives might not come right away. But when it eventually does, it gives us our just rewards.
Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening reminds me that when my family and I moved to the quieter, peaceful atmosphere of Henderson from nearby Las Vegas last year, I vowed to study the new landscape, learn the names of the rare flowers as well as the trees and shrubbery. After six months, I still have not done so. But reading about Owita pruning that river birch tree and planting geraniums; and watching Wall transform under his tutelage, I'm more motivated to do it. By knowing these trees and flowers, I will know my neighborhood better. And in doing so, perhaps I'll learn something new about myself as well. Thanks to Mister Owita, I'm eager to see what that might be.
Editor's Note: Sadly, the author lost her battle to cancer in December 2014, just months after the hardcover version of this memoir was published.
This review was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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