(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Gardens of Kyoto is based on the short story of the same title, which won the Pushcart and O. Henry Prizes in 2000 and which has become the first chapter of this novel. Kate Walbert uses her considerable imagination to expand on the lives of her original characters. As Ellen, her sisters, and their relatives come of age in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Walbert places their individual lives in the larger context of American society and the American past.

A key theme of The Gardens of Kyoto is the effect of war on people who lose a loved one, or soldiers who witness too much carnage for their minds to bear. The narrator approaches the subject from an oblique angle, but the loss brought on by war is never far from the heart of the novel. Young Randall, who dies at eighteen, shows that war can kill people before they have reached their full potential, robbing them of a chance to live their life. Lieutenant Rock and Roger Goodall demonstrate that the experience of horror can lead to suicide or abusive behavior against their own families. Ellen, left behind by Randall’s death, wonders why she was spared, and what a future with her beloved cousin might have been like.

When ten-year-old Ellen meets Randall at Easter in 1940, the twelve-year-old boy quotes Winston Churchill’s lines, spoken after the outbreak of World War II in Europe, almost as if to foreshadow that their relationship will forever be linked to war. He is a terribly thin, shy boy who spends his time reading and practicing “dramatic presentation,” like the young Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to ready himself for the public arena. Living alone with his stern father, Sterling, after the death of Sterling’s wife Jeannette, Randall introduces his cousin to the mysteries of the house.

He is obsessed with finding the room where escaped slaves hid before the Civil War. Back then, the house was a station of the Underground Railroad, which tried to ferry runaway slaves from the South to the relative security of the North, or even Canada. Four years later, at Easter, 1944, Randall has finally found the secret room. Surrounded by almost hundred-year-old debris from the past, he and Ellen consummate their love on “the cold, dirt floor” for the first and only time.

Randall proves fatalistic when it comes to war. Not yet seventeen, he volunteers, fully expecting not to survive. He quotes English poets from World War I, many of whom died in the fighting, such as Wilfred Owen and Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the pen name Saki. Ellen is dismayed at Randall’s resigned attitude. She becomes upset when, before boarding his troop train to San Francisco, he tells her that he will bequeath to her his few most cherished possessions.

Among these possessions is the book The Gardens of Kyoto. Randall’s biological mother, Ruby, had sent it to him on his thirteenth birthday. When the flamboyant Ruby found out that she was pregnant with Randall in Paris in 1926, she received the book from a kindly professor, whom Randall and Ellen have christened “Professor X.” Shell-shocked in World War I, the professor had regained his sanity by drawing the flowers which grew among the trenches on the bloodied letters recovered from the bodies of fallen soldiers. His drawings were later published in a book, just as in reality, an essay on “The Birds of the Western Front” was published by friends of Saki, who died in that war.

The guidebook’s central observation is that most of Kyoto’s world-famous gardens are not for walking, but for viewing only. They often represent craftily created illusions or riddles, such as a rock garden in which only fourteen of its fifteen rocks can ever be observed at the same time, or a garden that lies behind a window closed by a shoji screen. For Ellen, the book becomes a metaphor for trying to figure out the meaning of her own life.

Ellen treasures the...

(The entire section is 1609 words.)