Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859

Just as the lone individual can do much harm in society, Cotton Mather says, the lone individual can also do much good, and this theme subtly dominates Seedfolks. Fleischman's message is gentle because the average participant in the gardening is drawn to it either by some strength or need in his or her own background and character or by some personal ambition that the American freedoms encourage. Only one character sees in the gardening a model for the world, and the soapbox that he makes is for an unnamed little girl to stand on while reading her winning essay on how to give the garden a convenient water supply. Kim plants her beans not to start any movement but to ease the loneliness that she feels as the only member of her family whom her father never saw. She believes his spirit will know that she is his child when it sees her following in his footsteps and succeeding at growing food.

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Fleischman's confidence with the themes of individual activism and therapeutic gardening comes from his knowing of real-life people and situations in which these worked. He had heard his mother tell of her volunteer work at a Los Angeles Veterans Hospital whose therapeutic garden was used to treat "shell-shocked soldiers from the Korean and Vietnam wars." He had one friend who helped found many community gardens in Boston and another friend who worked at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. He had, then, much human truth from which to mold his story. After seeing the New Age article, he says, "I tossed out all the research I'd done on soil composition and cabbage family diseases and focused on the characters."

Fleischman merges this theme of the power of the lone individual to change public conditions for the better with the idea that constructive projects with nature bring out people's strengths. In these qualities, the novel might remind a reader of the wish that the poet William Cowper expresses in Conversation "that good diffused may more abundant grow." It recalls the spirit with which Cowper says in The Task, "God made the country, and man made the town" and also says in that poem

Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds, Exhilarate the spirit, and restore The tone of languid nature.

In Seedfolks, that argument spawns certain subthemes: People should be judged by what they do, and if given the chance to do good—even good for others—many will. Any person may be greater than his or her visage, physical condition, or ability to communicate in a given setting or language might suggest. Even the most stand-offish person may have some longing for human community, some yen to hear others' voices, win others' praise, be treated as a useful member of a family or family-like group. Feeling productive makes everyone happier. A person who has grown old or is displaced from his or her native country or region yearns to apply his or her native knowledge and skills in the new place. Even a businessman can get joy from giving something away. One can always enjoy, in any case, the good that one does for oneself. A person may be placed in a negative environment or condition by the misfortunes or misdeeds of his or her historical community, but the person can overcome that condition by taking the right actions individually. The passion for independence may be universal.

Playing out these themes are thirteen major characters and a few minor ones. Each of the story's short, unnumbered chapters carries the given name and portrait—a Judy Pederson line drawing—of a major character and is spoken from that character's point of view. In a departure from the character sketches of Bull Run, each Seedfolks character speaks only in the one chapter that is named for him or her. Thereafter, the reader learns of a character's development largely through what is said about the character by others. Few of the characters are totally fictional; the average character was inspired by someone whom the author knew or had heard of from the family members and friends mentioned here. Others, Fleischman says in his Internet feature, "are parts of me."

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Fleischman's zeal for mending the tears in the social fabric guides his choice of characters while leaving him much latitude for the individual personalities. While the characters include refugees from despotism and war, corporate abandonment and social isolation, family dysfunction, racial discrimination, and white flight, their sketches abound with surprises. The first chapter is devoted to a secretive Kim of Vietnam, while the next is devoted to an observant Ana, a retired and mildly disabled white woman whose family has lived in Cleveland since moving to America in 1919, when she was four. Ana makes her window her television screen and says she has watched Gibb Street change from a neighborhood of Romanians, to one of Slovaks and Italians, to one blending "Negroes" with Mexicans, other Latin Americans, Asians, and people of various ethnic backgrounds. Having once moved up to Cleveland Heights, she returned to Gibb Street after eighteen years to care for her ailing parents, now dead, and does not expect to leave again.

Wendell, the voice of chapter three, exemplifies the sustained insecurity of the white working class. A school janitor whose work subjects him to much bossing around, Wendell is now the only other white person in Ana's building. His telephone has brought him so much bad news that he dreads its ring.

Gonzalo, a character created from the author's experience as a volunteer aide for two years in a middle-school class for students learning English as a second language, makes his chapter, the fourth, show the role reversal that language barriers pose for adult immigrants from other lands.

Gonzalo is from Guatemala and in the eighth grade. He has discovered from the dependence that his father and aged Tio Juan (Uncle John) suddenly have upon him that "the older you are, the younger you get when you move to the United States." His growing mastery of the English language is the source of his independence and his main usefulness to his family. It also gives him another thesis: that cartoons and other television fare "can make you smart." Gonzalo is assigned to babysit his Uncle John on weekdays after school. Uncle John was a farmer back home, but since he speaks an Indian tongue that only Gonzalo's mother— who is away at work for long hours— understands, he has no way of getting help when he wanders out into the neighborhood and becomes lost. The day that he stumbles upon the garden, however, is the day that he begins to feel at home in America and to seem a man again, not a toddler. Gonzalo helps Uncle John plant a vegetable plot, and Uncle John sometimes motions helpful advice to other gardeners.

Sam of chapter six is closely modeled after the author himself. "When I lived in conservative Omaha for a year and owned the only beard on the block," Fleischman says in his HarperCollins statement, "I went out of my way to start friendly conversations with people at the bus stop and at the checkstand, trying to mend the rips in the social net." Sam is white and Jewish and, while retired, seems to have more means than most of the others. He studies and recites the etymologies of words and now makes it his "occupation" to get people to smile, especially at those fellow beings whom they habitually shun. Sam has devoted his career to leading and helping charitable organizations, including groups that support pacifism and world government. He sees in the gardening project some ways to continue his life's work. Being seventy- eight years old and "in no condition to dig up the soil," he hires a Puerto Rican teenager for that part and a third grader who owns a wagon to haul his water. Instead, Sam uses his own talents to work understandingly against the matter that Ana notices: the gardeners' tendency to group themselves by "race" or color.

Sam tells the others that the garden is a paradise, giving the word's Persian background. When the gardeners work together without regard for race or nationality, he thinks of the Garden of Eden. When they divide themselves by superficial qualities, he thinks of the Tower of Babel—or Cleveland itself.

Some major characters introduce interesting minor persons and events. Virgil, the Haitian boy helping his much seen but never named father raise gourmet lettuce, reports the heroism of Miss Fleck, his recently retired third grade teacher, as well the ambitious frenzy of his father. Sae Young, the young Korean widow who has lived in near-total seclusion since her dry cleaning shop was robbed and she was mugged, tells of the water-works contest. Maricela, the Mexican girl of sixteen who is to become, unhappily, an unwed mother, tells of the General Equivalency Diploma (G.E.D.) project that, reinforced by a talk from Leona about the beauty of life, gave her and two other pregnant teenagers the will to live and a way of keeping their babies alive.

Leona, Curtis, and Florence, the three main characters who are African Americans, depict both the problems that members of this group share with other working-class Americans and the racial discrimination that African Americans expressly suffer. Individually, they play significant roles in the story's development. Leona, who has migrated from Atlanta, does more than plant herself a patch of goldenrod as her grandmother would have done. Knowing that precious few others will be attracted to the garden as long as the smelly junk—"enough to curl up a crocodile's nose, especially in the summer"—is present, she takes the initiative to track down the vacant lot's ownership and convince the City of Cleveland to haul the trash away. Curtis, whose daily workouts at Kapp's Gym have caused him to be nicknamed for his deltoids—and to attract numerous admirers while losing Lateesha, his true love—acquires more lasting sources of pride. While learning to raise the tomatoes that remind him of his love for Lateesha, Curtis mentors Royce, a minor character resembling himself who claims to have been abused by his father. Finding that Royce would rather sleep on one of the gardener's grass clippings than return home, Curtis gives Royce money for food, buys him a sleeping bag and pitchfork, and makes him the garden's night watchman. Florence, the retired librarian who speaks in the closing chapter, is the character whose family lore gives the novel its name. She knows her great-grandparents walked from Louisiana to Colorado in 1859 to free themselves from the cotton culture. Her father, who told her of this, called them seedfolks, for they were the first members of their family to live in Colorado.

The arthritis in her hands has kept Florence from joining the gardeners, so she remains among their faithful watchers. (She once shames a man from taking a tomato just by daring him to go through with it.) We learn from Florence what we want most to know: that the garden has been renewed each spring, perhaps to this day.

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