“When you got something, someone always wants it,” he said. “You don’t show off what you got, not even your happiness. If you are happy, you go into your room and lock the door. You jump up and down where nobody gonna see your happiness. If you hide all your shiny things, ain’t nobody gonna take them away.” – from In The Garden of Stone, page 49 -
The year is 1924 and sixteen year old Emma wakes one night in War, West Virginia with coal dust in the air. A train has overturned and spilled coal over the porch of her home. Caleb Sypher, a railroad man who is many years older than Emma, helps to dig her and her family out. A week later Emma marries Caleb who takes her far from her childhood home to the mountains of Virginia and 46 acres of pristine wilderness. Over the next several decades, Emma and Caleb’s family live their lives against the backdrop of stunning scenery. They have babies, and struggle against poverty and unimaginable losses. They despair over unfaithfulness and mourn when illness strikes. And they find the simple joy in the freedom of wild horses, the leaping of trout from a cold mountain river, and the breathtaking beauty of colorful wildflowers. Sometimes they leave, but they always return, anchored to the land which they call home.
In The Garden of Stone is a multi-generational novel about the power of family and what it means to be a part of the land on which one lives. Susan Tekulve has had many short stories published, and her first novel feels a bit like short stories woven together. The book is a very literary novel where the characters drive the narrative. Each chapter moves the story forward through the years, introducing successive generations of the Sypher family. When Caleb dies, Emma grieves so deeply that her son Dean briefly returns to the poverty stricken coal town of War, West Virigina where he is raised by his grandmother and aunt. Eventually he returns to the family homestead and begins his own family. The reader comes to understand Dean and his wife, Sadie, and gets to watch their daughter grow up to adulthood. There are also other minor characters including a disturbed tramp who lives off the land, a friendly (albeit alcoholic) veterinarian, and a neighbor whose wife leaves him after the suspicious death of their son.
An important aspect of In The Garden of Stone is that of the Italian immigrants who came to the United States to stake their roots, raise their families and find work in and around Virginia. Tekulve captures not only the challenges these immigrants faced, but the culture which they brought with them from Italy. Early in the book, Caleb brings home rocks to create an Italian inspired garden for him and Emma. He finds joy in creating this oasis as a reminder of what his family left behind.
Tekulve’s writing has a dreamlike quality and she writes with authority about the Virginia mountains and the depressed coal towns of West Virginia. Perhaps the strongest aspect of her novel are the descriptions of the landscape. There were times as I was reading where I could feel the warm breeze, smell the sweetness of wild roses, and hear the gurgle of water as it rushed around river rocks.
In The Garden of Stone is a quiet book. The plot is not exciting or fast paced, instead the novel celebrates the lives of its characters – their growth, their struggles, their dreams and disappointments. There were times I wished to stay longer with certain characters but Tekulve left them behind to pursue the stories of the next generation. I kept returning to the feeling I had from the beginning – that this was a series of linked stories, any one of which could have stood on their own, but were made stronger by being connected to each other.
Some readers may find the pace of this book too slow, but I enjoyed the leisurely journey through the lives of the characters. Those who like character-driven stories with a deeply rooted sense of place will find In The Garden of Stone a satisfying summer read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.
Read other reviews of this book by visiting the TLC Book Tour page for the book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan Tekulve’s nonfiction, short stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, The Georgia Review, Connecticut Review, and Shenandoah. Her story collection, My Mother’s War Stories, received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. Author of Savage Pilgrims, a story collection (Serving House Books, 2009), she has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship and teaches writing at Converse College. Her debut novel, In the Garden of Stone, won the South Carolina First Novel Prize.
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