The Chess Garden Essay - Critical Essays

Brooks Hansen

The Chess Garden

Dr. Uyterhoeven and his wife Sonja hold permanent open house in Dayton, Ohio. Visitors can drop in anytime to play chess and other games in their garden. In 1900, at age seventy-seven, the kindly doctor decides to go to South Africa to care for civilians uprooted by the Boer War. His letters home take months to arrive. Sonja makes an event of each by reading it aloud at a garden party. The readings are especially fascinating to children because each letter narrates a new adventure in a strange land Uyterhoeven calls “the Antipodes.” There is no mention of the war.

According to Uyterhoeven, the Antipodes are inhabited by animated game pieces. These include many different kinds of chess pieces with human or animal characteristics. There are also darts that fly through the sky like birds, checkers that move about by jumping over one another, and happy-go-lucky dice that love to roll about in pairs bumping into everything. The Antipodes bear a resemblance to Wonderland and Oz, while Uyterhoeven bears a resemblance to Dr. Doolittle.

Uyterhoeven soon finds himself entangled in Antipodean politics, not unlike Dorothy in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900). Essentially the doctor is trying to help certain conscientious artisans save their hand-crafted products from sinister bishops, knights, kings, and queens who want to seize and destroy them. There is a ambiguous ongoing parable serialized in the doctor’s twelve letters; its meaning will probably depend on each individual reader’s interpretation. It may be a disguised way of saying that the greedy, imperialistic British, driven by the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, are trying to regiment the fiercely independent Boers and destroy a traditional way of life based on agriculture and handicrafts. Working under British authority and dependent upon British carriers to get his letters forwarded to Ohio, Uyterhoeven may have chosen this cryptic means of communicating his true feelings.

Hansen writes with impressive skill and does an excellent job of capturing the tone of American middle-class society before radios, phonographs, telephones, automobiles, films, television, and other technological innovations began to dehumanize it.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. September 10, 1995, p. 75.

Chicago Tribune. October 8, 1995, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXX, September 1, 1995, p. 207.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 24, 1995, p. 14.

The New Yorker. LXXI, January 8, 1996, p. 81.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, June 26, 1995, p. 86.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 23, 1995, p. 26.

The Village Voice. September 5, 1995, p. 14.