“On Mother’s Day in 1942 Aunt Betty and I gave Mama a gardenia bush…. Gardenias are supposed to grow in rich, moist soil. The soil at the corner of our house is not rich or moist…. Mama says that love alone has saved it but I think the bush has a mind of its own and tries very hard to stay alive and make flowers.” In a short piece she writes for a friend, narrator Lark Erhardt sums up the themes of Gardenias, one of five stories about characters from Harvester, Minnesota, by Faith Sullivan. The novel centers around Lark, her mother and aunt as they make a new home for themselves in California, both sisters having left husbands in the Midwest. They meet neighbors, castaways themselves, thriving despite war, troubled pasts, uncertain futures and personal challenges in the present. The three women are determined to succeed together, not over and against one another. They and their ragtag group of companions become an unlikely family, as scarce as gardenias in Minnesota.
The way Faith Sullivan weaves together the main characters becomes the roots for a new character, this California family. Sisters Betty and Arlene play off each other. Arlene is feisty and agitated. She is never settled, always improving the home, while Betty establishes routines and finds solace and peace at church. Lark and her adopted sister, Shirley, are foils for each other. Shirley is a classmate who plants herself in Lark’s home when she discovers not only that Lark’s caregivers have food, but a piano. Betty prepares Shirley for a better teacher, one who makes Shirley into a real performer. While Shirley pounds away at the piano hours a day, Lark does chores, writes stories, and resents this intruder. She doesn’t understand why her special skill, writing, such a secret, understated devotion, isn’t more valued in her own home than Shirley’s racket. Willie, Arlene’s estranged husband, and Stanley, Betty’s, are contrasts. Where Willie pleads with Arlene to come “home,” Stanley can’t seem to bring himself to settle with Betty. Betty’s career at Gilpin’s department store takes off; she earns promotions and increasing independence. But Arlene stagnates as an office worker at Consolidated, a manufacturing plant. Disappointed, she loses herself to a string of servicemen. The differences between these central characters leave space for reconciliation.
Secondary characters nourish this entangled set of family members to resolution. One such character is Lou, the negro driver who delivers goods the little threesome find at the secondary shop. “In Minnesota, Negroes were as scarce as gardenias, so sharing a drink with Lou lent an element of the exotic to Mama’s and my life.” Lou opens their eyes to the diversity California has to offer. Next, Fanny and Jack and their two dogs lend a class to the Projects, where they all live. When Fanny grows ill, Lark earns money walking the dogs. She also works for Miss Eldridge, another Project neighbor, filing family mementos. Miss Eldridge encourages Lark’s writing and becomes like a second grandmother to her. Boys who threaten to hurt Lark and Shirley are nourishment in their own way. Usually at odds, Shirley and Lark join forces to defeat the ruffians. Betty and Arlene, Fanny and Jack and the Eldridges support one another, sharing meals, caring for one another when sick, celebrating Shirley’s accomplishments and Lark’s milestones.
Faith Sullivan always includes in her work literature, the arts, and creative endeavors as forces – characters – in their own rights. These, too, bolster Lark as she comes of age. She follows closely the career of a ballet dancer she sees on the train from Minnesota. After she’s escaped from war torn Europe and made and acted in movies, the press questions Alicia Armand’s identity. Is she really just a fake from Iowa? Lark makes up her own stories about her and the baby Aunt Betty lost, as well her friends back home in Harvester. They become a safe place where she can dream herself into who she wants to become. In her stories, she can see herself from the outside, as she sees Aunt Betty “through a stranger’s eyes… no longer in the flush of youth but [as] life was carrying her on a long, slowly rising tide toward wholeness.” Faith Sullivan brings to the fore the power the creative arts have to lift us into the next stage, into who we want to become.
Gardenias is more than a coming-of-age story. It is a timeless tale that uses the backdrop of one girl’s struggle during wartime to illuminate the indelible spirit we all possess to write our own stories. I recommend it highly and look forward to reading the remaining books about Harvester.