Using clear and eloquent prose, Faith Sullivan elevates the ordinary lives of nine-year-old Lark Erhardt, her mother Arlene and her Aunt Betty in _Gardenias_, evoking the strength they muster to become independent women–women who represent the historical predecessors who forged the way toward liberation.
Narrated by Lark and a continuation of Sullivan’s highly praised _Cape Ann_, the story is set in San Diego during the depression and World War II. Lark’s life is unraveling along with her parents’ marriage, and she must learn to cope with living far from her beloved grandparents and close friends in a bleak housing project where roaming gangs of boys threaten her, and where her neighbors are dealing with their own heart-breaking tragedies and displacement. While Lark busily befriends her neighbors, her arch-enemy Shirley, a classmate who has apparently suffered neglect and abuse, shows up at her door and robs her of the attentions of her mother and her Aunt Betty.
It is Arlene’s willfulness and determination that uproots the three main characters and moves them west to make a better life. But as the story progresses, it is Aunt Betty, abandoned by her husband after a miscarriage, who rises from the devastation of her life and makes her way in the world while Arlene sinks into a depression over the death of a man she has fallen in love with. As the two sisters build a home and a life together, a cruel incident forces Lark and Shirley into a surprising camaraderie. All must find within themselves the strength to survive their fate and continue to move forward.
I loved Lark’s narrative voice, hearing in it an authenticity that can only be found in a child’s voice. I was on Lark’s side, sharing in her feelings of disappointment in leaving her hometown of Harvester, Minnesota. I was annoyed with Lark’s mother and aunt, sharing her sense of betrayal when they befriended Shirley. And I reveled in the warm details of homemaking and family life, as they reminded me of my own Catholic childhood: _“Are we having tomato soup and Velveeta sandwiches?” [Lark] asked, hoping to distract her. We often had those on Friday, both for Aunt Betty’s Catholic sake as well as the war effort._
In _Gardenias_, we are reminded of life’s roller coaster and the kind of patience and perseverance some of us have seen in our own parents who lived as young adults through those trying times. It is a good reminder and an inspiration for our generation to take hold of the reins of life and live it the best we can.
_Mary Alterman is a freelance writer, artist and homeschooling mom. She lives in Burnsville with her husband and two sons._