Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673

The setting for the transformations in Seedfolks is an urban neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio—"a city of immigrants." Its Gibb Street, being the dividing line between a mostly black, Latino, and Asian neighborhood and a mostly white one, brings working- class people of many different backgrounds into one another's experience. They pass one another at the grocery stores, variety shops, and dry cleaners, for example, and they watch one another's comings and goings from their apartment windows above the street. Fleischman is a master at putting individual personalities and needs into play with a single environment. In Bull Run, it is the famous Civil War battleground. In the Coming-and-Going Men short stories, it is the New Canaan, Vermont, of 1800. In Westlandia, it is an entirely new civilization. Here in Seedfolks, it is around a vacant lot in the rundown section of Cleveland that the plot and characters are spun.

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Kim braves the rats and the unseasonable cold of an April Sunday to start her project deep into the lot. Meaning to get only the attention of her dead father, a lifetime farmer in Vietnam whose death occurred before she was born, she chose an area behind a rusty refrigerator for her six beans. Her new sprouts need watering sooner than she expected, however, and the junk that secures her project from all but the most watchful eyes also limits its sunlight. Ana, who suspiciously watches the activity from her third-floor window and takes the trouble to investigate it, enlists Wendell, a janitor living on the first floor, to help with the watering. In a reflection finely expressed, Wendell soon clears himself an area of the lot and starts planting, too. When a few others have joined, Leona, a neighbor who has learned how to get indifferent public officials to cooperate, takes the initiative to research the lot's ownership (it was the city of Cleveland) and persuade the owner to haul away the rotted trash. "The smell... made you think of hog pens and maggots and kitchen scraps from back when Nixon was president," Leona says. She takes a bag of it into the Public Health Department and opens it right there.

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After that, the number of gardeners grows to a crowd as Leona envisioned. Its eyesore converted to what one gardener would call a Paradise, this part of Gibb Street becomes so pretty and proud that one gardener wishes to see it included in the sites that the city recommends to tourists. The many abandoned buildings notwithstanding, it now has this surprising garden to give a lift to strollers and shut-ins alike and encourage other improvements in the street's atmosphere.

Appropriately, the reader sees precious little of the interiors of the apartments and the shops. We learn that the apartment in which Kim lives with her grieving mother and sisters had, at least on that April Sunday when she first sneaked out to the lot, a traditional altar to her father's memory. We learn that Wendell's apartment includes a telephone (it has brought him such bad news that he dreads its ring), that one of the more faithful onlookers owns a rocking chair, and that the window from which Lateesha sees the beefsteak tomatoes Curtis is growing in the hope of winning her back has lace curtains. Otherwise, the garden gets most of the attention throughout the book.

As to time, the presence on Gibb Street of Kim's family places the story in the America of the post-Vietnam War years. Refugees from other twentieth-century wars in Southeast Asia—Cambodia, for example—also live on the street. They, and the assortment of refugees from the more recent civil wars and economic crises of Latin America and the Caribbean, were the latest non-whites to join the African Americans. That group began to migrate from the southern United States to the northern industrial states during World War I and to move to Gibb Street during the Depression. Gibb Street, Ana tells us, is "like a cheap hotel. You stay until you've got enough money to leave."

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Seedfolks gives a good experience when read alone, and it could be yet more effective when read aloud by differing voices. This device to which Fleischman entrusts the plot as well as the character development has brought the story some criticism. Some critics have viewed its vignettes as too brief, superficial, and disjointed in action to have the coherence expected of a novel. Fleischman seems aware of such objections but undisturbed by them. He acknowledges being more interested in the puzzling out of the plot, the wording of the speech, and the sounds of the activity. He clearly values the multiple points of view that vignettes like those in Bull Run and Seedfolks give a story, and he clearly believes that children and young adult readers have different expectations than adult readers in these regards. "I really write," he says, "for the home theater.... You know, the kitchen table is my stage." Viewed from that perspective, Seedfolks fully qualifies as a novel. Its departures from the norm of adult fiction enhance its literary value for readers of all types.

Fleischman's crafting this story within less than seventy pages attests to the genius of his design. Its being told by the characters individually—the technique used successfully in Bull Run—makes Seedfolks at once simple and complex, and invariably entertaining. The natural challenges of gardening give the plot convincing pattern, focus, action, even suspense. Having met one character, the reader hungers for the next. The characters' very diversity makes the lot engaging, and the garden's breadth, set against the "city of immigrants" and the unspoken histories that have ignited migration and immigration, makes every character seem a natural choice. Well assisted by Judy Pederson's simple drawings, the character sketches generally ring true.

With each character being allowed to show the substance of his or her pertinent thoughts, feelings, and experiences, the style of the expression becomes too insignificant for accuracy in dialect to seem required, or even appropriate. Only in Sae Young's style do we see any noticeable amount of dialect, and that departure is brief. The more she gardens and hears the others' speech the more Sae Young acquires the others' syntax.

The characters often express themselves figuratively. Ana compares the street, as mentioned, to a cheap hotel; and when her curiosity about Kim's plantings causes her to disturb the growth of Kim's beans, she says she feels like one who has "read through her secret diary and ripped out a page without meaning to." Sam spins another metaphor. "You've seen fishermen mending the rips in their nets," he says. "That's what I do, only with people." Virgil says the meddling drug dealer, when the rat ran up his leg, "shook his leg like his toe was being electrocuted"; and he sees their lettuce raising as "like having a new baby in the family. And I was like its mother." "He was a salmon traveling upstream through his past," Nora says of Mr. Myles, returning to the metaphors. "Gardening boring? Never!" she later says, voicing the author's personal view. "It has suspense, tragedy, startling developments—a soap opera growing out of the ground." Noting the intensity with which her black stroke patient Mr. Myles concentrates on his weeding and other soil work and the mental lift that they both get when taking in the garden's sights, the British nurse Nora recalls the ancient Egyptian prescription for insanity that Fleischman had learned of from the New Age newspaper article. "It was a mind-altering drug we took daily," Nora says of their strolls through the lot. Such analogies seem to be uttered randomly. Some come, in fact, as a surprise. All well drawn, they serve the plot and its characters well.

Seeing how their interaction with the garden improves the participants' and onlookers' lives, we feel no noticeable regret about their prior conditions and no anxiety about the imminent deaths of aged and feeble characters like Mr. Myles. Having seen them live more vibrantly, we can believe them to be happy.

What happens in the end to Kim, who unwittingly started it all, Fleischman leaves us to imagine. If it is Kim herself whom Florence sees in the lot with a trowel and a bag of beans that next spring, why does Florence not recognize her? Has Kim grown that much physically over the long winter, or simply achieved such emotional maturity? Is a Vietnamese girl of another family re-enacting Kim's drama for much the same reasons? Readers may speculate not only about this but also about whether other members of Kim's family ever join her in the gardening work or at least learn of her contribution to it. Do they ever wonder about the healthy beans that Kim brings home for their table, or fear, once they learn of it, that her role in the garden might cause her to be charged with trespassing.

The appearance of loose ends here could be symbolic and philosophic. Is the lone initiator least suspected, understood, or appreciated by those closest to him or her? Does one's uniting with the universal family relieve one's dependence upon the birth unit? Since, as many believe, it is from one blood that God made all nations, and since it is "a little child" who is to lead the human family back to harmony, the reader might tolerate this inconclusiveness for the possibly fruitful inquiry that it can stimulate.

Social Sensitivity

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The realistic range of prejudices that it exposes and treats with its simple remedies of constructive contact and labor with nature makes Seedfolks excellent for raising one's social consciousness. Except that he builds his character portrayals upon cultural, as well as personal, backgrounds, neither of which would be flawless, Fleischman can subvert old stereotypes without feeding new ones. For example, does Virgil's father exemplify the stereotype that many northern urbanites harbor about the West Indian businessman? Noting the earnestness of the father's effort with his dream crop and the poor results that he gets from these exertions alone, we can see his indifference to the pregnant teens' squash to have gotten its just deserts. Seeing his pain, however, readers wish him better luck thereafter.

Partly by bringing to the foreground desires and motives that the stereotypes ignore, Fleischman provides for the stereotypes to be overcome. Amir, the Indian shopkeeper, upon meeting and hearing in the garden a Polish woman whose walk there was the same seven long blocks as his own, realizes that he has previously heard nothing about Polish women in Cleveland, where they are numerous, except that they "cooked lots of cabbage." He soon realizes, he says, "how useless" is all that he has heard about Poles, "like the worthless shell around an almond." And seeing Curtis' tenderness toward Lateesha, the labor and creativity that he invests into producing her tomatoes, and the mentoring that he gives Royce—along with the change in self-image that his new way of dressing projects—the reader learns to view Curtis as a vulnerable human being despite his obsession with developing his deltoids.

Along with its information and practical ideas, Seedfolks brings enlightenment, often directly, on the abiding social questions of equity, international relations, immigration, civil rights, responsible government, fair housing, constructive care for the aged, and economic reform of the urban environment. Because it demonstrates its remedies, it provides for the remedies to be applied.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

Abrahamson, Richard F., et al. "From Author's Chair to Bookmakers Studio." Book Links (January 1997): 16-20. This identifies books that treat aspects of bookmaking from inspiration to production. It describes and gives the address for the Landmark Editions contest for young writers and includes comments from Paul Fleischman on the advantages of using a pencil for writing.

Beetz, K. H. "Joyful Noise." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, 1991, pp. 2366-70. This analyzes in depth Paul Fleischman's 1989 Newbery Award winner Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices.

Clarke, Anne. "Books in the Classroom." Horn Book (March-April 1993): 3. The author describes the experience of accompanying Paul Fleischman to schools in Belgium and the Netherlands that are attended by children of the United States Department of Defense. She demonstrates strategies that Fleischman used in teaching the children about writing.

Copeland, Jeffrey S., and Vicky L. Copeland. Speaking of Poets 2: More Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994. This is the second collection of conversations with authors of poetry books intended mainly for children and young adults. Its informal interviews discuss the childhoods, writing habits, and writing advice of twenty authors, including Paul Fleischman. The contributors offer ideas on how their works might be introduced to youth. An overview of the poet's life and work precedes each interview.

Fleischman, Paul. "Paul Fleischman Writes About How He Came to Create Seedfolks." HarperCollins Kids Page (1997): www.harperchildrens.com/ features/seedstateLhrm. Fleischman discusses the personal experiences and longings, and what he learned from those close to him, that inspired this novel's theme, plot, and characters.

——. "Sound and Sense." Horn Book (September- October 1986): 551-55. Fleischman discusses the use of rhythm and other qualities of sound to convey meaning as well as aural pleasure.

Shearin, John W. "An Interview with Paul Heischman." Indiana Media Journal (springsummer 1998): ideanet.doe.state. in.us/ aime/journal/intervu. This illustrated November 14, 1997, interview conducted with Paul Fleischman in Indianapolis during his visit there for a Reading Connection conference discusses his childhood, his reliance upon words and sounds to convey sense, why and how he writes, why his books appeal only to a limited audience, and what he himself was reading at the time. It closes with a list of Fleischman's books from 1979-1998.

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