Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening
Caring for her yard and garden was never much of a priority for Carol Wall, but one day she decided she had neglected it long enough. Her neighbor had a great yard, so she hired her neighbor’s gardener, Giles Owita. Mr Owita transformed Carol’s yard, trimming trees and adding colorful flowers; but he also changed her life. His advice on plant problems grew into advice on life problems. Mr Owita and Carol became more than an employee and employer; they became friends. Their relationship grew to include Carol’s husband Dick, Mr Owita’s wife Bienta, and the Owita children.
When Carol’s cancer relapsed, the Owita’s supported and encouraged her. When Mr Owita got sick, Carol rallied her friends to help his family.
Mister Owita’s Guide To Gardening is a charming memoir. Carol Wall writes with honesty about her own needs. She has a great deal of insight into both herself and others. I enjoyed the parallels she drew between a blossoming yard and a blooming heart.
Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a story about gardening, of course, but its a story about so much more. Its a story about family, faith, healing and personal growth. Most of all, its a story about the friendship between Carol and Mr Owita.
The Sisters Weiss
In a very conservative Jewish family, sisters Rose and Pearl grew up close in age and close to one another. Like all sisters, tho, they also envied one another. When Rose, as a young teenager, brought home a book of photographs, Pearl reported her to their parents- with severe consequences.
Rose was sent to live with her grandmother and attend and even more conservative religious school. Instead of reforming her behavior, she took the opportunity to do more forbidden things- even enrolling in a college photography class. Rose’s family made one more attempt to keep her from straying, by arranging a marriage for her. Rose accepted it- until a few days before the wedding, when her groom told her she would have to give up her beloved photography.
Torn between family and tradition on one hand, and freedom and art on the other, what could Rose do?
The Sisters Weiss jumps forward forty years at this point, for the second half of the book. Both sisters now have daughters of their own- and haven’t spoken to each other in years. Its impossible to summarize without a spoiler for the first half, so I’m just going to leave it there. Except to say that the tension between faith and freedom repeats itself for younger generations.
I have read and enjoyed many of Ragen’s other books. This one, however, struck a surprisingly personal note with me. I also grew up in a very conservative religious family- altho not Jewish, and not as strict as the fictional Weiss family. I can very much relate to the struggles Rose and Pearl face- trying to find their place in both their faith and the world.
In The Sisters Weiss, Ragen has written an interesting story. She has also addresses complicated, real-life issues with understanding and grace.
You might like (both non-fiction): Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent
When May Kimball finally left her abusive drunken husband, taking her children Polly and Ben with her, Polly took a lamp back into the house for one last look at the father she hated. Teenage Polly dropped the lamp, burning the house to the ground and killing her father.
May took her children to the safety of the nearby Shaker religious community, and left them there. Polly was taken under the wing of another young girl, Charity, who had been raised as a Shaker her whole life. Charity was a devout believer who had been ostracized for a skin condition.
In the safety of the Shaker community, Polly began to speak of the rhings she imagined in her dissociative state when her father raped her. The Shakers took these words as divine revelation and began to see her as a “visionist.”
Meanwhile, fire inspector Simon Pryor was looking into the fire on the Kimball farm. His plan was initially to help his corrupt employer buy the property cheaply. As Simon Pryor dives more deeply into the issues of inheritance on the farm, he begins to question his own motives.
All the while, Polly is moving towards her moment of truth. Is she really a Visionist? Has Charity’s faith been misplaced? What will happen when the whole truth is finally laid out?
The Visionist alternates narrators between Charity, Polly and Simon Pryor. To be honest, at first I skimmed Simon’s chapters because I wanted to read more about the growing friendship between the girls. But as his story unfolded, he developed into a very interesting character.
The Visionist excels in two areas. The first is the characters. Not only are Polly, Charity and Simon well-written, but there is a whole cast of supporting characters that are well developed with just a few lines.
The second is the portrayal of the Shakers. It is clear that Urquhart did extensive research into this historical sect. It would be easy to portray them with skepticism, but she treats them with warmth and respect. The details of Shaker life make this book come alive.
The Visionist is an outstanding first novel. I hope the author writes another one just as good, because I would like to read it.