On a recent trip to Sedona, my friends Ken and Heather loaned me a slim volume called Seedfolks, written by Paul Fleischman (ill. Judy Pedersen). They said that it was a collection of stories, around a central theme of gardening. Not being much of a short story reader, or much of a gardener, I have to admit that I set it aside. But I'm going to see Heather and Ken again soon, and I would like to be able to return the book to them. So I picked it somewhat desultorily last night, to give it a look. I didn't set it down again until I had finished. OK, this is not earth-shattering, because the actual time elapsed was only an hour (it's a short book). But still ... Seedfolks captured my interest.
Seedfolks consists of thirteen chapters, each told by a different person, each describing the impact of a small community garden on his or her life. The first chapter introduces Kim, a young Vietnamese immigrant whose farmer father died before she was born. Kim decides to plant some lima beans in a vacant lot outside of her home, in honor of her father, in the hope that he will look down and see them, and see her. She thinks: "I would show him that I was his daughter."
Seeing Kim's actions out of her window, an elderly woman named Ana, a Romanian immigrant, is initially suspicious. However, once she realizes what Kim has done, understands that the girl is planting a garden in the trash-strewn lot, Ana takes an interest. When Kim doesn't appear for a few days, Ana taxes her friend Wendell (the only other white person in the building) to water the beans. Wendell, lonely and grouchy, is inspired to start his own garden.
Others from the neighborhood follow, each making an individual decision to start his or her own garden, or to contribute in some way to what the others are doing. One woman takes on City Hall, and gets the trash cleaned out of the lot. One man starts a contest. A man in a wheelchair makes a garden in a barrel, so that he can reach it. And elderly Mexican immigrant who speaks no English strives to help others learn more about gardening. Some people plant flowers, other vegetables. Some build walkways, others gates. And gradually, as the garden evolves, the people find themselves growing into a community. They learn about each other, help one another, and in many cases open up as individuals. There's quite a bit of racial and cultural bridge-building. For example:
"He was young and black. He looked rather dangerous. People watched him and seemed to be relieved when he left the garden. Then he began spending more time there. We found out that he had a stutter. Then that he had two sisters, that he liked the cats that roamed through the garden, and that he worked very well with his hands. Soon all the mothers were trying to feed him. How very strange it was to watch people who would have crossed the street if they'd seen him coming a few weeks before, now giving him vegetables, more than he could eat. In return, he watered for people who were sick and fixed fences and made other repairs... He was not a black teenage boy. He was Royce." (Amir's chapter)
Yes, some of it is hokey. But there's enough of an edge to some of the portrayals to keep it realistic (an unwed teen, another teen who wants to grow marijuana, etc.). As a bit of a cynic, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop - for the gangs to destroy the garden, or the city to decide to level it, or something like that. But while there are setbacks, the garden remains strong.
It seems a bit of stretch to me that a common garden could really cause people of various different backgrounds, many with decades of pent-up resentment and fear, to bond with one another. However, I would like to believe that it's possible, and this book does renew my hope. Seedfolks is an uplifting portrait of how community-building might work, over a shared purpose. I do believe that they key to wiping out prejudices is for people to get to know individuals from the demographic groups that they fear. Because it's much harder to be biased against a particular, known, individual than it is to fear some amorphous, unknown group of people.
Many communities have chosen Seedfolks as their one-city-one-book selection. You can see a list on Paul Fleischman's website (scroll down). I can see why. It's a quick read, but one that has profound implications, and raises various cross-cultural issues. This is nominally a children's book, but really, it's suited to anyone over the age of 10 or so. I feel that this book offers a high return on the hour of time that I invested in reading it, and I recommend that you pick it up if you run across it. Thanks, Ken and Heather!
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.