In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve
Author: Susan Tekulve
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / 1930s / West Virginia / Sicily / Immigrants / Coal Mining / Marriage / Family Saga)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hub City Press (5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a very good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Spanning almost fifty years, the story of a family in rural West Virginia and their passion for place, each other, the foreign and familiar.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: I do -- months and bees feature rather prominently for two of the main characters.
I'm reminded of...: Jennifer Haigh, Ursula Hegi
First line: On Monday, washday, the two boys standing outside the white frame house looked like wizened old men.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like fiction of place, immigrant stories, and the vignette-y look at family a la Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers.
Why did I get this book?: The era, the place.
Review: I was interested in this book because my paternal grandmother's family were Sicilians who ended up in West Virginia and western Maryland coal country. We're a taciturn people on my father's side of the family; my wife and sister-in-law marvel at the long, drawn out conversations we have about weather -- the current weather, the past weather, the weather to come -- but for my brother and I, that's just how you communicate with those relatives.
My wife and sister-in-law, being bolder, nosier people who didn't get the memo that one talks about the weather, are unabashed questioners, a trait I've come to deeply appreciate as they've elicited some of the loveliest and surprising stories from that side of the family. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away after she and my wife met only once, and that brief glimpse into her family's life was eye-opening and fascinating. It's one of my greatest regrets I didn't get to talk to her about more than the weather.
In some ways, this book felt like I got a chance to continue that conversation.
Spanning almost fifty years, from 1924 to 1973, this novel is a collection of vignettes following a West Virginia family. Emma, a 16-year old Sicilian immigrant, loathes her mother's joyless existence and marries impetuously. Caleb, her new husband, works for the railroads and has a generous but drifting kind of focus that emerges even more strongly in his son Dean. Tragedy forces Dean from his family's land and upon his return, his devotion to the ground, the earth, the animals, and even the people he crosses creates joy and anguish in equal part. His daughter comes of age when her immigrant Italian relatives are old and frightening and the lure of the world outside of her family's property lines calls her more than her family's link to the land.
Tekulve's writing style is pretty, poetic, but not ornate or obfuscated. Each chapter feels like a self-contained short story in many ways; together, they show the arc of a family and place, but individually, there's a brilliant, bright, or blinding moment that stings or illuminates. I got the sense that some of the pieces were composed independently of the volume: Tekulve occasionally repeats an incident or a particular turn of phrase from one story in another, as if trying to offer context to a chapter were it removed from the collection. I didn't mind the repetition as it sort of emphasized the almost fairy tale quality to the family: fatherless children, magical gardens, temptations.
The familiarity of Tekulve's characters and place resonated with me as much as the writing. She articulated the nuances of rural poverty that felt authentic rather than shocking or exploitative. In her description of the Sypher family property, with the creeks and trees, random cabins, farm animals semi-feral, men obsessively working the land -- hauling, pulling, cutting, chopping -- I was reminded of my grandfather, father, and even now, my brother. (A trip to see that part of the family isn't complete without something being hauled, a cabin or milk house explored.)
I will admit to laughing a few times Tekulve's characters remarked on the West Virginia landscape as resembling Sicily; my family was stationed in Sicily for a few years when I was a child, and the country was gripped in a terrible drought the entire time we were there. My memory of Sicily is of a dry, stony, yellowed place, scrub and withering trees rather than the sort of verdant hilliness I associate with West Virginia. It wasn't until a few years ago when traveling in the Mediterranean did I see Sicily as it usually is -- fresh, green, hilly but alive -- but I still can't shake the sense of it as I knew it. (This isn't a knock against Tekulve's description of place!)
The vignette-y style reminded me immediately of Jennifer Haigh's Baker Towers and Ursula Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm, so readers who enjoy those kind of family sagas will enjoy this volume (grandmother with Sicilian background not needed). Highly recommended for fans of immigrant stories and rural American life in the first half of the 20th century.
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