Title: The Cross Gardener
Author: Jason Wright
When I was an undergraduate, I learned the hard way to pay attention to the external details of a text (there's a fancy English teachery word for those external details, but I don't remember it now). I had a professor who told us we'd have reading quizzes for each of the major texts in class. On the first quiz, he asked us only one question: who was the book dedicated to? At the time, I thought it was an unfair trick, but ever since then I've paid careful attention to things like dedications and cover designs and acknowledgments.
Mitch Albom-esque small hardcover format: Check.
Overly inflated price ($22.95) for 280 small pages of text: Check. (So you can give it to your Grandma for Christmas)
Shout out to Glenn Beck: Check.
Based on these criteria, I'll admit that I went into reading The Cross Gardener with a certain degree of prejudice. While it's the only book in General category published by a national publisher (Penguin), based on what I'd read from the extratexual clues, I had a feeling that The Cross Gardener was going to be dripping with sentimentality, conservative in viewpoint, and not all that well written. It was all of those things. The Cross Gardener is basically a fable-- poor John has lost everyone he's ever loved: his teenage mother, his brother, his saintly father, and then his perfectly chaste, smart, beautiful and one-dimensional bride, Emma Jane (think Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin) and their unborn son. Consumed by grief, John gives up on life, ignores his heartbroken daughter, and spends his time at the site of the car crash that took away half his family. There he meets the Cross Gardener, a mystical figure who resembles John, lives in some undisclosed location with his mother, and helps the broken man look beyond himself so he can start to live again. The end is oh-so-sappy that it even puts The Five People You Meet in Heaven to shame. I felt like I needed to brush my teeth to get the saccharine out of my mouth after finishing the novel.
One thing that I thought was really, really interesting about The Cross Gardener is the way that Wright writes a book with very strong religious overtones, but he writes about religious Christians who are not Mormons. Instead, he seems to place the book in the religious traditions which predominate in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (where Wright lives and where the book is set). While Emma Jane and John keep themselves pure until marriage (therefore earning her the right to wear white, as Wright says), she and her parents seem much more like evangelical Christians than Mormons. I don't know whether to admire Wright for exploring the traditions of his community or to feel like he's moving out of his own faith tradition to make the book more marketable.