Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.
Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in. As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
Praise for Lisa Van Allen’s The Wishing Thread
“Reader to reader, knitter to knitter: You’re going to love this book.”—Debbie Macomber
“Whimsical . . . great for fans of Sarah Addison Allen and Alice Hoffman.”—Library Journal
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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Van Allen / THE NIGHT GARDEN
Up the Garden Path
Gloria Wallace Zeiger had been peering through her binoculars for such a long time that when she turned to her husband to speak to him, two red indentations had appeared on the bridge of her nose.
“They’re watering. They’re definitely watering,” she said.
Her husband of forty years, Richard Zeiger, did not look away from his television show though it had gone to a commercial. “Can you see sprinklers?”
“No,” Gloria said. “But I know they’re doing it.” She made a noise that was halfway between a sigh and a huff, and then dropped her binoculars on the nylon strap around her neck. Her hair scrolled into two perfect blond commas under her earlobes, and her makeup was unsmudged. “They’re probably doing it at night so that nobody sees them. But they are doing it. They have to be. Nobody can have a garden like that in the middle of the worst drought in twenty years unless they’re watering.”
Outside the window, the gentle hills of the northwestern Catskills looked dusty and tired. Rows of corn that should have been ebullient emerald were instead a resigned color between yellow and green. Cats had begun taking dust baths like birds, and birds began lazing on porch stairs like cats, and the black bears that frequently wandered through the hamlet of Green Valley lumbered about shaking their massive heads disapprovingly from side to side. In nearby White Lake—where hundreds of thousands of hippies had once flocked for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair—the usually abundant lake waters had shriveled away from the shores. The paint on the old mom-and-pop bait shops and motels blistered and pruned in the sun. The crossing guard near Rick’s Hardware—who first showed up in White Lake for what everyone called “the Concert” and who had manned her post year-round by sheer force of habit ever since—swore that she’d had to hold up her sign and stop traffic because a tumbleweed had rolled across the intersection on a scorching, windless Wednesday at high noon.
And yet, below the Zeigers’ picture window in Green Valley, the sunbaked terrain was interrupted, preposterously, by the wild, lush, profligate, effusive green of the Pennyworts’ private gardens, blooming ferociously despite the water ration laws.
Although the gardens were not world famous, they were locally famous (infamous, Gloria told her friends back home in the city) because a whole acre of the Pennywort farm had been devoted to a dozen or so small, individual garden “rooms” that were joined together by tangled pathways of tall evergreen hedges. The whole thing might have reminded Gloria of the garden maze she’d seen on her honeymoon in France, but that diversion had been mild-mannered, neat, and austere, while the maze on the Pennywort farm looked like it sprang directly from the earth: toothy, rambunctious, and snarled as climbing vines.
Every year, the Pennyworts expanded the maze to be one or two rooms bigger. Flowers grew out of season, and plants that should not have bloomed in western Catskills soil were hardy and flamboyant. Dog violets that were the size of pennies in most yards grew to the size of small dogs. Trumpet vines with their horns of bright orange and yellow were nearly the size of actual trumpets. Gloria had taken a stroll through the gardens only twice: The first time had been more than three years ago, when she’d visited the garden maze as an excuse to meet her new neighbors. She remembered everything, each individual garden that made her eyes go wide and her breath catch in her lungs. She remembered the soft-as-cloud lamb’s ear and prickly cones of teasel in the Petting Garden. She remembered the large orange koi fish from the Rock Garden that wagged their golden tails in happy greeting, and the children who reached into the pond to tickle their bellies as if the fish were dogs. She remembered bright walls of bougainvillea standing neighborly beside creeping, spidery Venus flytraps—how such exotic species grew in the Catskills seemed halfway between a miracle and an abomination. And she remembered the bright sentinel sunflowers that lined a long corridor of tall green hedges; if she didn’t know better, she might have sworn they followed her with their big drooping heads when she passed by.
But mostly what she remembered was the thing she wanted most to forget: the Remembering Garden. The maze, some people said, could bring on a kind of mental or emotional clarity—if a person was open to it. The things a woman didn’t understand about herself might become clearer; the difficult choice a man had to make would not become less difficult—but he might feel more confident about making it after a visit to the garden.
Gloria had dismissed the rumors and ducked into the Remembering Garden. The little green room of tall hedges was classical and poetic: elegant ivory columns, a pretty marble fountain of a woman pouring water, and words chiseled simply in a stone architrave: sit a while and remember what’s forgot. The plump honeybees were buzzing, the fountain was singing, and the garden was gently landscaped with champagne-colored roses, cascading green ivy, and hummocks of forget-me-nots. Gloria thought of nothing special. People passed by. Thoughts of an old friend that she had not spoken to in a long time popped into her head; she could only assume this was the power of suggestion. Later, after she’d spent a sleepless night wrestling with fitful dreams that were full of apologies she had no intention of making to her long-lost friend, she blamed the Pennyworts for the annoying crookedness of the bumper of her car, which had happened as a direct result of both the Remembering Garden and the guardrail that had kept her from going into a rocky Catskill ravine when she’d fallen asleep at the wheel. This was not magic, mind you; it was simply a thing that happened because it’s never a good idea to sit and ponder the past too long.
Although most people in the vicinity of Green Valley did not like to say much about the Pennyworts and got an odd look on their faces whenever Gloria tried to tease out a little harmless gossip, no one denied that the family was a bit different, if not strange. At the very center of the Pennyworts’ garden maze was a squared-off area, no more than the size of a one-car garage, surrounded on all sides by heavy stone walls and accessible only by a locked, opaque wooden gate. Dented metal signs were posted every six feet on the wall at varying heights and in multiple languages: Mantener fuera. Hålla ut. Keep out.
All of the little plots in the Pennyworts’ garden maze looked healthier than they should under the tinder-dry circumstances, but it was this walled-in center garden that was blooming most voraciously in the summer drought. Gloria could see down into it from her vantage point on a hill that overlooked Green Valley, and the garden’s reds, yellows, pinks, whites, oranges, and purples seemed to be frothing out over the tops of the stone walls in certain places and spilling effulgently over the sides like a sloshing, heady beer. Once, on a neighborly trip to see if the Pennyworts could make use of her old dehumidifier before she threw it out, Gloria had asked why no one was allowed in the walled garden at the heart of the maze—no one except for Olivia Pennywort, who apparently made her ingress and egress as she pleased. But the answer Gloria got was so noncommittal and vague that within an hour of hearing it she could no longer even recall what it was.
Now, it annoyed her that the Pennyworts were not only watering their gardens illegally, but they seemed to be squandering community resources on a garden that nobody from the public was even allowed to see.
“Maybe there’s a loophole,” Richard Zeiger said from his armchair, his remaining hairs shivering in the blow of the air conditioner. “Maybe they’re allowed to water because they’re a commercial enterprise.”
“They’re not a commercial enterprise,” Gloria said. “Or at least, they’re not supposed to be. They don’t charge anything for people to get in.”
She didn’t need to raise her binoculars to see that two women, clasping hands and wearing gauzy, matching skirts, had stopped by the Pennywort farm to tour the gardens and divert themselves a little from the doldrums of a rainless summer, as people were known to do.
“I’m calling,” Gloria said.
Her husband was quiet.
He looked at her, his formidable eyebrows raised.
“If they were watering their peas and carrots or something, I wouldn’t care. But the fact that they get to water their enormous maze of a garden just to keep it pretty, while my two hanging baskets of phlox have just about turned into ashes—it just isn’t fair.”
Her husband was quiet still.
“It’s our civic duty,” Gloria said. “Don’t you think it’s our civic duty to report somebody who’s abusing the water supply? The very limited water supply?”
She held the phone up listening to the dial tone with exasperation. She and Richard had retired up to Green Valley three winters ago. The landscape had been the very picture of peace: deer tracks in snow, bare trees and pale sky, just a sliver of smoke coming from the chimney of some distant, hidden house. They’d had no idea what summertime in the valley would be: Cars lined up and down the road as people stopped to buy vegetables or walk the “magic” maze, homeless people sleeping in a falling-down barn, immigrants from obscure Central American countries milling about in hopes of work, the noise of tractors and yelling men, the stink of manure hanging like a putrid-sweet cloud on muggy days, the horrid flies that descended on the valley like a biblical plague and just as suddenly were gone—there was no peace and quiet whatsoever from thaw to frost. Gloria had come to Green Valley seeking an Eden—her reward for many long years of sitting in a windowless city cubicle. Instead, she had found a dry, noisy, dusty, backwoods, stinky, fly-infested hell. She couldn’t fight against the weather or flies, but there were things to be done about bad neighbors.
Her knuckles turned white from her grip on the phone.
“Okay, okay,” Richard said from his armchair. “You don’t have to convince me. If you’re going to call the police, call the police. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“Watch me,” Gloria said. “I am.”
At the police station, the officer who heard the phone ring looked at the caller ID and rolled his eyes. Thanks to Gloria Zeiger, they’d already sent guys out to Green Valley twice this month, and it was only mid-July. The first time, they’d sent a car because Gloria had reported “strange purple smoke” coming from the property, but it was gone when they arrived. The second time, Gloria had ratted out her neighbors because one of the various squatters who lived in the Pennyworts’ old barn was doing her calisthenics routine. Topless. Again.
Now Gloria was complaining about the gardens being watered, but nobody wanted to investigate. To visit the Pennywort farm was to be reminded of everything in the world that was beautiful, and bountiful, and luxurious, and endlessly good. And this was a terrible thing for a man to be reminded of, because it made his heart black with despair. Trips out to the Pennywort farm always followed the same emotional trajectory: the melancholy resolve of the drive into the valley, then the inevitable springing up of hope to see the garden maze with its promise of youth and rampant possibility, and then the absolute certainty that life could change, would change, that the thing a person most wanted and deserved was right around the corner, right there, just a moment away—and then, the lonely, empty drive back home.
The problem, as most men of a certain age in Green Valley knew, was Olivia Pennywort. If a man could be guaranteed that he did not have to set eyes on her when he paid a visit to the farm, he might have felt less wary of his assignment. But old Arthur Pennywort was pretty much off his nut—living in a dilapidated shack in the woods like some kind of wild animal—and his twenty-nine-year-old daughter, Olivia, had been running the show since she’d dropped out of high school. These days, Olivia lived in the top of a tower that had once been a silo, and if any man could have coaxed her to let him in by climbing her hair like a ladder or slaying a dragon with a sword, he would have gladly done it. At all hours of the day, she could be seen working the farm that her family had owned since before she was born. Sometimes, bicyclists and Sunday drivers slowed down if they caught sight of her hoeing weeds or loading produce onto a truck. Sometimes people who came to visit the garden maze wandered away from it to watch her scrape paint off an old fence or chase away Green Valley’s horde of wild, obnoxious goats. In spite of the fact that Olivia tromped about in work boots and overalls, in spite of the fact that her apricot-red hair was always semi-undisciplined in a messy bun, in spite of the dirt under her nails, the dark freckles on her sun-brown skin, the metallic smell of soil or even fertilizer that wafted about her, she was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman in all of Green Valley, and perhaps beyond. She was young, and vigorous, and magnetic, and her hazel eyes were the luscious brown-gold-green of the Swamp Garden, which despite its lowly name was a high fantasy of dark pools of water, rich green lily pads, floating flowers, and sprays of blue-tinted vines that twined up the bark of delicate mandrakes.
Part of Olivia’s particular allure was how mysterious she seemed, how kindhearted yet distant, how nurturing but withholding, how resistant to summary of any kind. Over the years, many men and a few women had rallied to win her affection. Bids were placed on bar tables, teenagers goaded one another into dares, rookie cops volunteered to go out to her place to try their hand. Some of the older guys on the force, who never ceased being amused by the yearnings and strivings of younger bucks, had to hold their tongues to keep from dishing out warnings: That girl isn’t just your everyday heartbreaker; she’s full-on dangerous. Watch out. Hopeful swains returned from the Pennywort farm with nothing but heartache and a grudging, sorrowful respect for their opponent; those who did dare to make a pass at her never did it again.
Olivia Pennywort was like a beautiful but dangerous plant kept safely under glass, a thing to be admired only from afar. And though few people in Green Valley knew it, she had not come to be so standoffish for her own good, but for the good of everyone around her. Her natural inclination was to be affectionate, trusting, and warm. It had taken many years of careful practice for her to learn how to rein in her enthusiasm about making new friends, to act as if her personality fell in the precise center between friendly and aloof. There was no choice: Much as she loved her neighbors, she had to stay slightly away.
To the cops who were regularly sent to check up on her, she was friendly, conversational, and patient—but she never let herself do anything that might be construed as flirting. To the children who came to her garden maze, she was generous and amusing, always offering them her homemade lemon drop candies or saying “catch!” and tossing them fresh strawberries until they’d caught one in their hands—and yet, she was always careful to stay a few feet away. To the tribe of transient women who slept in the Pennywort barn and took care of the gardens, Olivia strived to be a sympathetic leader, a good listener, and a patient caregiver—but because none of the women ever stayed on the farm very long, she was saved from the moral conundrum of becoming anyone’s actual friend. It was only with her father, the one person who knew what she was and loved her anyway, that she could truly be herself.
Her summer days were as busy as days could be from sunup to sundown: Her farm crew needed constant direction and adjustment as they worked her fields; the boarders who lived in her barn and tended to her garden maze needed reassurance and TLC; her father needed regular monitoring and supervision to keep him from being an accidental danger to himself; and her garden—her private garden that housed her most personal and important plants—needed constant pruning and trimming; otherwise it would roil like bubbles blown in a glass of milk. She did not, and would never have, the things a normal woman could have: intimate friends who knew and accepted her innermost secrets, a husband to warm her on long winter nights, or children who would lift their arms to her and say Up! Up!
But still, she was alive—and that was something. She had the work—the wonderfully exhausting and meaningful work—of running her farm. She lived in a paradise of such extravagant enchantments that the world had not seen such a place since Adam and Eve, and she alone heard its secrets whispered in her ear. The Pennywort farm with its fields and woods and outbuildings and barns and garden maze was like a living, human-sized terrarium: exclusive, self-sustaining, self-contained. What happened on the farm happened for the farm, so that in the same way a plant made its own food from sunlight the farm kept itself running by effortlessly drawing toward it and claiming the things it needed—including Olivia. The edges of Olivia’s universe were delineated by wooden fences or old railroad spikes on the property lines, and even on the worst day of the year the farm was the best place a person could be—the only place Olivia could be what she truly was with any degree of happiness about it. Even now, as Olivia noticed a woman running toward her at top speed across a field of acorn squash, the great green gears of the farm were turning, and the things that manifested themselves as “problems” were actually just signs of life going on.
“Hey, Olivia! There you are!”
“Here I am,” Olivia said. The woman—a boarder named Libbie who had started sleeping in the barn three weeks ago—stopped a few feet before Olivia. And Olivia, without thinking, stepped a few feet back. She had been hoeing weeds down row after row of cucumbers for hours; her arms ached and her lower back was cramped. But this was not unusual—just another sign of midsummer, like cicadas and thunderstorms.
“We caught somebody!” Libbie said, breathing heavily. “Trying to steal . . . from the farm stand!”
Olivia frowned. “Really?”
“Yeah. Bram saw it with her own eyes.” Libbie put her hands on her hips, her shoulders curved with the effort of breathing. This was the most exciting thing that had happened on the farm in a very long time. “This girl just starts shoving things in her bag—like we wouldn’t notice. How do you like that?”
“Not someone we know . . .”
“No. A stranger. From out of town.”
“Of course.” Olivia squinted toward the distant structure of the roadside farm stand. No one from any of the Bethel hamlets would steal from the Pennywort farm; they knew better. Since the garden maze had first been built in the years following the Concert, speculation about it had been vigorous. People said that a person who picked a flower from the maze would be cursed. They pointed to the birds and the bears and the foxes for corroboration: Not even the hungriest wild animal would pilfer its breakfast from Pennywort land.
But an outsider who didn’t know any better—that was a different story.
Olivia squinted at Libbie in the relentless sun. Libbie was in her mid-twenties, and her colorful and slouchy skirts always put Olivia in mind of a woman overplaying the part of a gypsy in a stage show. She’d had a field day with the clothing donations that were sometimes dropped off at the barn by the local churches and synagogues. Libbie had come to the maze trying to decide if she should continue with college or follow her dream to act. When the maze hadn’t offered an immediate answer, she did what so many maze-walkers did: She’d decided to stay on. Olivia peered at her face. “Do you . . . are you getting a black eye? Did somebody hit you?”
Libbie smiled, beaming proudly. “Don’t worry. We caught her and locked her in the pen. She put up a fight, but it was three of us against one of her.”
“Wait. You locked a person in the peacock pen?”
“The birds aren’t using it right now,” Libbie said, sheepish. “Plus, we didn’t want her to run.”
Olivia tried to hide her reaction. “Well, I guess that’s . . . functional.”
“Do you want me to call the police?” Libbie asked, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. “Have them come arrest her?”
“Not just yet,” Olivia said.
She thanked Libbie for handling the situation as best she knew how. Then she carried her hoe and crossed to the far side of the barn, near the old silo, where the peafowl were set up to roost. She wore clothes typical for her workday: a close-fitting tank top, work boots, and a long cotton skirt that she took a lot of flack for but that struck her as cooler and more accommodating than denim—it was the best balance she’d found between being protected and being comfortable. Her hair, so heavy and long, had been braided and swirled into a loaf that sat smack on the middle of her head. A wet red bandanna around her neck helped her keep cool.
As she approached the peacock’s cage she could see a figure sitting on the hay with her back curved against the wire fencing. Her knees were curled into her chest. She wore old white tennis shoes with beaded denim shorts that were so tiny the pockets stuck out under the hem. Her tank top was hot orchid pink and tacked with spangles that threw lasers of fuchsia every which way. Her black hair was held back by a glittery teal band.
“Hello there,” Olivia said to the thief. She leaned against the front of the cage but did not open it. The girl did not answer, did not even turn her head. “This kind of gives a whole new meaning to the idea of getting thrown in the pen.”
The girl didn’t laugh. “Bite me.”
“What did you try to steal?”
The girl didn’t answer.
“Are you hungry?” Olivia asked.
“I want you to let me go.”
“What’s your name?”
The girl’s face was shaped like a cut diamond, wide temples and narrow chin, and her eyes sparkled like anthracite coal. Her nose was small and flat at the tip, her skin a warm color between taupe and cream. Her hair was long, thick, and black, running straight as a river at midnight.
“Are you going to call the cops?” the girl asked. “Or are you just going to leave me locked in here all day.”
“That depends on you,” Olivia said. “Look—you don’t have to tell me your whole name. Just your first name’s good enough. Just so I know what to call you.”
Suspicion cut through her gaze. But she said, “I’m Mei.”
“Good. And I’m Olivia. I own this farm, so it was me you were stealing from.”
The girl made a noise that was a cross between a resigned sigh and a huff of frustration. “I’m sorry, okay? Yes, I was hungry. You’ve got, like, a ton of food. It’s not like it was going to throw you into bankruptcy if I took a tomato.”
Olivia leaned the hoe against the peacock pen. Her fruits and vegetables and beans were irresistible, even for the most stubborn of meat-and-potato types. She believed that her produce called to people, that if it had arms it would stretch them out and draw people in the same way that people reached out and picked up an apple or plum, so that it wasn’t a customer picking a peach but the other way around. She also had learned that a little human salesmanship didn’t hurt, either; they crushed the unsellable onions on the underside of the tables so the scent bloomed beautifully around the stand. They sprinkled fragrant basil leaves among the tomatoes, and offered cubes of watermelon on toothpicks. It was impossible to resist for adults with full bellies; it was more than impossible, Olivia guessed, for hungry kids.
“How old are you?” Olivia asked the girl in the pen. Mei.
“Do you live around here?”
“Where you from?”
“Are you a runaway?”
“I’m an adult,” she said. “Nobody owns me. I didn’t run away from anybody.”
Olivia pulled a handkerchief from the back pocket of her pants and rubbed her sweaty face. Though she and all the farm’s denizens wore loose-fitting cotton and big straw hats to fight the high summer sun, there was no escaping the tyrannical, merciless heat. Humidity congested like water in everyone’s lungs; dust became a skin on their skins. She tucked her handkerchief away.
“Listen, Mei. I—” The walkie-talkie clipped to her waistband chirped for attention; Tom was looking for her. She’d told him she would walk the fields with him (again) today to inspect the drought damage and talk over the possibility of putting in an irrigation system—which they normally wouldn’t need. Eastern farms had to contend with difficult, rocky soil, but one thing that did work to their advantage was a normally reliable amount of rain. This year, though, the fact that they hadn’t put in irrigation was finally catching up to them. She didn’t have much more time to give to Mei at the moment, though the girl seemed like she could use a little attention. Olivia told Tom she would be with him in a minute. Then she flipped open the lock of the cage where the girl was penned. “Come on out.”
Mei crawled through the door. The girl stood and brushed off her knees, and in a moment, everything Olivia had been planning abruptly changed.
The girl’s belly was swollen before her.
Tom would have to wait.
A runaway was one thing. A pregnant runaway was another.
“Am I free to go?” Mei asked. “Or are you just going to keep staring at me because I’m pregnant.”
“Sorry,” Olivia said. “Why don’t you walk with me for a minute?”
“Why should I?”
“I want to show you something.”
“Just tell me what it is,” Mei said.
“I can’t tell you. I can only show you. And, given your situation, I think you’ll want to see this for yourself.” Olivia started walking; the girl stayed put. But when Olivia didn’t slow down, or gesture for her to come, or even ask Did you hear what I said? Mei began to follow on her own just as Olivia guessed she would. (Over the years Olivia had seen many women come and go. The farm—the valley—seemed to open up and draw in, and in the center of the valley was the garden maze, filled with its own enchantments for wanderers, worriers, and women trying to find their way.)
Olivia spoke as they walked, softly, so that Mei had to stay close by her to hear. “The first thing you should know is that you’re welcome to stay here, if you want to. No questions asked.”
“You mean, like, on the farm?”
“We’re not exactly the Hilton, but we’re . . . well . . . we’re here. See that old barn there, the one that looks like it’s about to fall down? There are cots, blankets, outhouses, outdoor showers, a little kitchenette, and all the food you could ever want and then some.”
“Seriously. I’ve got eleven women staying with me right now.”
“Staying in there. You’re not kidding.”
“It doesn’t look like much. But it’s been standing for over eighty years and it hasn’t fallen down yet.”
“Why?” Mei asked, her voice having lost some of its hard edge.
“Some people come to Green Valley because they’re trying to find direction. Or answers. They want to make a decision or a change, and they don’t know what to do. For the people who need a little time to themselves and some room to think, there’s nothing better than a stay in the barn. We Pennyworts have been doing this since before I was born.”
“So how much do you charge a night?” Mei asked as Olivia walked them closer to the garden maze, as slowly as she could stand.
“It’s free,” Olivia said.
“Well, you don’t have to pay any money to stay.”
Mei narrowed her eyes. “What’s the catch? You might as well spill it now.”
“You have to work while you’re here.”
“What exactly do you mean by work? This isn’t some sex trafficking place . . .?”
“God no,” Olivia said. “Anyone who stays works on the gardens in return for room and board.”
“I’m not sure how much work I could do.” Olivia watched Mei’s big eyes begin to water. “I just . . . I can’t do much of anything right now. I’m pregnant, see?” She gestured awkwardly toward her belly. “And everybody wants me to give up the baby. But I’m not sure if I should.”
Now Olivia looked blatantly at her belly; she wasn’t past the six-month mark, if Olivia had to guess. “You don’t have to do any work you’re not comfortable doing. And . . . maybe there’s a way I can help you.”
Mei wiped her face and blinked rather prettily. “How?”
“Our garden maze has these . . . I don’t know . . . properties. If you walk through it alone, and you hold your question or your problem lightly in your mind, you might just get your answer by the time you find your way out.”
Mei looked at her incredulously. “Your garden maze is supposed to bring me a magical answer to my . . . my question. That’s what you’re seriously telling me right now.”
“You haven’t been in Green Valley very long,” Olivia said. “But things are different here. Lots of things.”
Mei made a noise between a snort and a laugh. “And what if I don’t get an answer?”
“Then you’re welcome to stay here until you do.”
Mei glanced at the barn as they neared it. “So . . . like, all the women in the barn . . .”
“They’re waiting on answers,” Olivia said. “When they’re ready to go, they’ll go.”
“Hmm,” Mei said. And now, instead of looking at the barn, or the tall hedges that marked the maze, she was looking at Olivia. Olivia didn’t flinch; she’d been looked at this way before, with speculation, distrust, and even disbelief. She’d been looked at this way her entire life—by people who called Green Valley home and by strangers passing through. The fact that she allowed outsiders to sleep in her barn didn’t help her popularity in town: Some people supported her, some people felt bad for her boarders, and some—like her neighbor Gloria—seemed to hate her guts. Inevitably, the crowd that lived in the barn was ragtag, scattered, sundry, and mismatched. Most of the women were quiet minders-of-their-own-business; a few were occasionally rowdy and had to be escorted from local watering holes by annoyed policemen. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that the women who stayed on the Pennywort farm were moochers, freeloaders, and delinquents—lazy and unwilling to get real jobs. The town had given the Pennywort tenants a nickname: the Penny Loafers.
Reading Group Guide
Recommended Reads from Lisa Van Allen
I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.
As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!
Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.
Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.
The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.
Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.
Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www.WriterLisaVanAllen.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.
Lisa Van Allen
1. Olivia Pennywort has a unique condition that causes anyone she touches to develop a rash. What would you do if you had Olivia’s condition? How would you cope if you knew there was no way to get rid of it?
2. Olivia keeps her condition a secret at the risk of being perceived as a monster and driving everyone she knows away. What do you think would happen if Olivia was more open about her condition? Is she right to fear the public’s reaction?
3. Because of her condition, Olivia believes she “would be wrong to expect more of her life than what she had” (page 27). Even though she has everything she needs to survive, do you think this is an acceptable attitude? In what ways can expectations shape how you live your life?
4. At the start, Sam’s condition has stripped him of the ability to feel. If you had this condition, which sensations do you think would be the most jarring to lose?
5. When she was younger, Olivia chose not to be with Sam because she was hurting him, even though she still loved him. Did she make the right decision to break up with him? Should she have told him the truth? What would you have done?
6. Sam comes from a family of rescuers and feels pressure to be a rescuer as well. In what ways can a positive family legacy be both a blessing and a curse? To what extent should a person attempt to live up to a family legacy? What happens if this legacy comes at the expense of carving an individual path?
7. A central theme in the novel is temptation, or the idea of desperately wanting what we know may be bad for us or for others. Is there a right way to deal with temptation? In what scenarios would it be okay to give in?
8. Another core theme is the importance of touch. How important is touch and feeling for a happy life? Is it possible to find happiness without it? Do you think you could?
9. Olivia is appalled that her father knew she was becoming poisonous and did not try to stop it. What makes Arthur’s act so reprehensible? Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a destructive act? How would you go about making things right?
10. When Sam comes to rescue her out of the poisonous garden maze, Olivia realizes that “when a person could find happiness, she should seize it without question, without a single thought for the future, and with a steady resolve never to become bitter once it was lost” (page 307). Does her reasoning make sense? Is this the best way to live your life?
11. When the boarders ask Olivia what they will do without the maze, Olivia replies, “The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it” (page 312). Do you agree with Olivia? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out what we really want?
12. If you had a magical maze that could help you figure out what to do, what would you want it to help you with?
13. Why do you think Gloria continually tries to change the Pennywort farm? What do you think her actions suggest about how we respond to what we don’t understand?