Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall

I do not have the greenest of thumbs. When I bought some of the broccoli, spinach, and lettuce plants that the high school horticulture class had babied along from seed, I brought them home and placed them in the sunniest spot I could find in the house as I figured it was too cold to put these tender little things outside. Two weeks later, they were still alive but crawling with aphids. I painstakingly pinched every tiny aphid and egg I could find every other day while cursing my original impulse to buy them. My daughter mentioned my struggles to the horticulture teacher who told her that they're winter plants and should be planted outside. I breathed a sigh of relief and did that. They promptly died. Clearly I'm cursed. And I don't think I'm meant to garden. So I was intrigued by Carol Wall's memoir, Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening, about her own gardening shortfalls that were turned around by the wonderful man she hired to bring order and beauty into her neglected, overgrown yard.

Carol Wall hated flowers. They symbolized death to her and so when she hired her neighbor's new gardener, Mr. Owita, to tackle her own yard, one of the first things that she asks of him is that he pull out the gaudy azalea bushes a former owner had planted. He quietly ignores this particular instruction as he starts to transform Wall's yard. As Mr. Owita makes inroads in the yard, he and Wall start to develop a tentative friendship as well, sharing little tidbits about their lives and families. Soon the tentative friendship blossoms into a much deeper friendship with each of them confiding some of their hopes and fears in each other. He is consoling as she walks the difficult path of caring for and eventually losing aging, ill parents and grapples with her own scary diagnosis. She wants to help him and his wife bring their daughter over from Kenya to join the family they've made in the US.

As she tells of the blessing of friendship with Mr. Owita, Wall also reflects on the many things he's taught her: gardening, certainly and an appreciation for flowers and their ephemerality but also equanimity in the face of obstacles, an acceptance of the cycle of life, simple gratitude, courage, and the importance of kindness and forgiveness for all. Through her assumptions about this poor Kenyan immigrant, who in actual fact holds a doctorate, she must face her own prejudices, horrified to find that she has any at all. She witnesses his caring interest in his fellow human beings, his tranquility, his contented joy in life, and his simple but important and powerful acts of nurturing both people and plants. She sees the contrast in his approach to life and her own rage against circumstances that she cannot change and the ways that it hurts her and those she loves.  From him, she learns to dig in the dirt and to envision future beauty.

A very personal and moving memoir, this is very definitely a love letter to a remarkable friend. It is a lovely and engrossing read that will enchant memoir readers looking for more than just another dysfunctional life story. Although there's not perfection here, in either Wall's or Mr. Owita's lives, and there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome, there isn't the dysfunction so common in the genre. Wall looks honestly at her own past and the battles she has fought. She doesn't shy away from detailing the times when she thought Mr. Owita's advice was wrong or too hard, only to discover that his advice was in fact the thing that she most needed to hear. He turned around more than her yard; he helped her to change how she views the world and her place in it. And he helped her see the beauty in her azaleas.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of the book for review.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts