‘The Cross Gardener’
By: Jason F. Wright
Rating: Three out of five bookmarks
A few weeks ago, I reviewed a wonderful book, "The Wednesday Letters" by Jason F. Wright. It was a story about the bonds of family, the enduring strength of love and the power of forgiveness.
Wright has just released a new book that returns to many of the same themes, but the tone of the piece is different from the former.
"The Cross Gardener" tells the story of John Bevan, a young man who was orphaned as a baby when his mother died in a car accident. He grew up on a Virginian apple orchard run by his adoptive father and two boys who were also adopted, who John regarded as brothers.
When John marries his childhood sweetheart and has a daughter with her, various tragedies strike all at once, and most of the people in his life end up being taken from him. John finds himself alone, trying to raise his traumatized daughter and deal with his own feelings of loss and guilt. Then he meets the Cross Gardener, an enigmatic man who tends the roadside crosses that have been planted along the highways of John’s town. This mysterious wanderer opens up John’s eyes to both the meaning of life and the journey beyond it, and John learns to gradually accept his losses and do what is best for his child.
Much like "The Wednesday Letters," this book explores personal relationships, most strongly that between parents and children, but while "Letters" felt uplifting even in the midst of loss, "Gardener" is possibly one of the saddest novels I have ever read.
That is not to be confused with depressing — Wright has a voice in his writing that keeps his story crisp and light, even while he is telling a unfortunate series of events. There were some very engaging concepts about the novel, particularly the titular one that everyone has a "cross gardener" who helps them transition from one stage of their life (or afterlife) to the next. They help us cope with the loss of loved ones and remind us that we "are not alone when we die."
This becomes a reoccurring phrase in the story. In a way, a "cross gardener" is not just a literal term, but is also means someone who helps with "crossing" over (if you play with the words, cross gardener sounds like crossing guard).
Yet I still felt this book was lacking that special spark that Wright’s other books have had. What I had found neat about "Letters" was how it touched me enough to have me consider writing letters to my husband every now and then, much like how the father wrote to his wife within the story. I’ve read reviews for "The Christmas Jars," another book by Wright, where reviewers also expressed the sentiment of starting the tradition portrayed in the tale. Yet "Gardener" doesn’t encourage any customs or ideas like this, unless one might consider driving down highways to paint any roadside crosses (I’m not saying no one would, but it just seems less likely).
As I mentioned, this novel is very sad (the characters spent so much time crying, which while it was understandable given the circumstances, it started to lose emotional effect after a while). More so than the sadness of it, however, what detached me from the story was how it gradually became schmaltzy to a certain point — something which I praised Wright for not doing in "Letters" when it would have been easy to do so.
I unfortunately can’t rate "The Cross Gardener" as well as I did Wright’s previous novel, but it is still a worthwhile read, and if you may have ever lost someone close to you, this story may be a good source of comfort and insight.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her about it.