Alexandra Risen’s garden chronicle began as a collection of 20 personal short stories. After taking a memoir course at the University of Toronto, Risen asked her instructor to help her restructure these short stories into a book with themes, tensions and outcomes. Eventually, the individual accounts took on a new form; the final version is a poignant reflection on love, acceptance and the connection between nature and human beings.
This moving meditation begins when Alexandra’s father dies at the same time she and her husband buy a simple house located high on a gorge in the middle of the city. The extensive garden around the house is overgrown with weeds and invasive tall shrubs. The statuary needs repair and the gazebo is crumbling. As she labors in the overrun garden, Alexandra is reminded of her childhood. The thick backyard foliage takes her back to the deep woods near her childhood home where she fled to find a respite from her empty family life.
As Alexandra begins to prune the out-of-control bushes and yank out the weeds, she slowly uncovers some fine features in the garden; her mood is lifted by what she unearths. About the same time her garden is regaining some order, her mother has a stroke which leads to the onset of dementia. During a visit to her mother’s home, Alexandra discovers an envelope of old, yellowed documents. As she ruffles through the papers she comes across some previously unknown details about her parents’ past.
Alexandra learns that her parents were individually uprooted from Ukraine and forced to work in Nazi Germany during World War II. They met in a Displaced Persons Camp and migrated to England. From there they immigrated to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where her father found work at the Canadian National Railway and her mother at a textile factory. Neither parent ever discussed their drab and bleak past with their daughter which led to countless misunderstandings and deep resentments on her part.
As Alexandra works the soil, her resentments are slowly overcome with more positive recollections of her early family life. Specific flowers, trees and shrubs remind Alexandra of her parents in unique and memorable ways. “Unearthed” examines the complex family relationships and the power of nature to heal Alexandra’s resentments and misunderstandings. The parallel unearthing narratives are revealing and captivating.
Risen’s memoir is an appealing and satisfying journey. The renewed and reshaped garden is a metaphor for the growth and insight we each can experience in our personal lives. It is a story that leads the reader to reflect on acceptance, reconciliation and love within his or her own family. It is an especially engaging metaphor for gardeners.
Alexandra Risen has published many essays in newspapers and online magazines; this is her debut book. “Unearthed” is 271 pages; the publisher is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.