|Published in 1997|
Sarah Stewart's The Gardener is a sentimental story about a little girl who brightens the lives of everyone she meets. The story is told in first-person point of view by Lydia Grace Finch through a series of letters she writes to her Uncle Jim, her Mama, her Papa, and her Grandma.
Set during the Depression, Lydia discovers that she has to go live in the "big gray city" because her father is out of work, and her mother's seamstress business has waned. They can no longer afford to take care of her, so they send her to live with her Uncle Jim who is a cantankerous, old man who owns a bakery. He has two employees who work for him, Ed and Emma Beech. Even though she loves her family very much and doesn't want to leave, Lydia packs her bags and heads to the city with all kinds of seeds, stationery on which to write her letters, and a passion for gardening that she inherited from her grandmother.
When you first open the book, there is a picture of Lydia and her grandmother picking tomatoes in their garden. In the illustration, she is seen smiling and handing a ripened tomato to a jovial woman. Although she is completely happy living at home and doesn't want to leave, she decides to head to the city with a positive attitude.
The entire story is told through the letters Lydia writes back and forth to her family while she is on this journey. The first two letters she writes to her Uncle Jim explaining why she is coming to live with him. The first letter, dated August 27, 1935, she writes from home while she is packing for her trip. The second letter she writes to her uncle, dated September 3, 1935, she mails from the train station. In this letter, Lydia shares "three important things" with her uncle that she is too shy to share with him face to face.
Once Lydia is on the train, she begins writing letters to her family at home. She writes one to her Mama, one to her Papa, and one to her "dearest" Grandma. Her letters to her family back home are full of gratitude for all they have done for her. Despite her circumstances, she is not bitter.
Once she arrives in the big city, for a brief moment, the mood changes. She arrives at the station, and she is all alone. There are no words on the two-page illustration to explain what she must be thinking and feeling. In the only dark picture in the entire book, the train station is depicted as being dark and overcast with shadows; however, in the bottom left-hand corner Lydia is seen looking up and is surrounded by light. Her uncle finally arrives to take her home, but he is not smiling. He is not mean or anything; he is just not happy. When she gets to the bakery, Lydia writes a letter home saying she is so excited because there are window boxes attached to the bakery windows where she can plant her seeds. She will not have to give up her passion for gardening after all.
Through her correspondence with her family back home, Lydia once again thanks them for everything they do for her and tells them how she wrote a long poem for her uncle trying to make him smile. Although he didn't smile, he read the poem aloud, put it in his shirt pocket, and patted it. He must have a heart after all.
Lydia becomes friends with Ed and Emma Beech, her uncle's employees, and becomes attached to a little grey cat that sleeps at the foot of her bed. She begins planting her seeds everywhere. Several months have passed, and Lydia writes home about a secret place she has found. She has planned a big surprise for her uncle. She is determined to make him smile, and Emma becomes involved as the excitement grows. Uncle Jim's business seems to pick up because of the cheerful atmosphere Lydia has brought into the bakery. I won't tell you what the surprise is that Lydia finally reveals to her uncle, but I will say the story has a happy ending.
Nearly a year has passed, and things have improved for Lydia's family back home. In the end, she is reunited with them once again. The final illustration shows Lydia hugging her uncle at the train station. The train station is no longer dark but is bright yellow. Ed and Emma are standing in the background as Emma wipes a tear from her eyes.
I highly recommend this book for young children. The message is positive and uplifting. The illustrations are delightfully drawn by Stewart's husband David Small. They are full page illustrations with the text on each page written in letter form, dated, with a salutation, and a post script. I enjoyed reading this book about a little girl who doesn't let tough times bring her down. She remains positive despite her circumstances and brightens the lives of everyone she meets. Reading this book will make you smile.
Reading Rockets: A Video Interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small