Kristin Hannah’s Winter Garden, Sort Of

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall

Not, not mine: it’s somebody else’s wound.
I could have have borne it. So take the thing
That happened, hide it, stick it in the ground.
Whisk the lamps away…
 -Anna Akhmatova, As quoted by Kristin Hannah

One day this summer I (masked) was in the drugstore for my monthly refill, and the pharmacist, James Lee Elliott (also masked), asked me what I was reading lately.

I mentioned my recent fondness for poetry, especially English and Russian (in translation, of course), which like any American lad I had despised in my callow youth.  Take a boy who loves Robin Hood and mindless cowboy shoot-‘em-ups and place before him names like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Algernon Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rosetti and you will encounter fierce resistance.  If they had been named Kitty, Rocky, Shotgun, and Lefty, maybe not.

James Lee mentioned that he really liked Kristin Hannah’s novels, which I pooh-poohed as chick-lit. He assured me that they are really good, and that with my love of Russian literature I would appreciate Winter Garden, parts of which are set in Leningrad (nee’ Saint Petersburg then Petrograd then Leningrad and now Saint Petersburg again, as is right and just).

In the event I gave the book a quick look when the local Barnes & Noble reopened. To me (here I risk the stern disapproval of Kristin Hannah’s many fans), the characters seem to be two-dimensional wish-fulfillment stereotypes, and the writer describes a morning sky as “cerulean” (p. 53), the favorite adjective of every beginning poet. Bad enough, but then there’s this line: “Take me to bed, Daniel Flynn. Get me through this night” (37).

Daniel Flynn did not flee, but I did, and put the book back.

And then James Lee died. As a health care professional he served the needs of dozens of people every day, and at some point caught the corona virus while performing the duties God expected of him.  In doing so he became one of the 200,000 Americans (so far) to die of a pestilence which millions of other Americans deny exists.

He was my merry pharmacist. I taught his children. We were speaking of books and ribbing each other one day, and then within a few weeks he was dead.

I went back to Barnes & Noble and bought the book James Lee had recommended.

And I still didn’t like it. James Lee mentioned that much of Winter Garden is set in Leningrad, so I went in search of those bits and was much rewarded in them.

Here I must praise Kristin Hannah for her thorough research into Leningrad and The 900 Days, and for her brilliant – brilliant – rendering of a woman and her children enduring the obscene cruelties of Communism and then the even more obscene Nazi siege. Most of them die – Hannah spares the reader none of the horrors.

When the grandmother succumbs to cold and starvation, the protagonist writes, “Thankfully, Sasha is in the army, so we only have to stand in line a few hours for a death certificate” (341).

That was Leningrad in 1941; in contemporary America the family of another friend who died of the CV had to wait months for a death certificate, without which they could not bury him. And, no, I’m not comparing The 900 Days with the CV; I simply make an observation.

I wish Kristin Hannah had centered her story in Leningrad instead of framing the strongest and most skilled narrative only as an expository device to explain the behaviors of the modern characters.  She has a gift for serious historical research and then building good, solid fictional narratives upon that research. Winter Garden is certainly worth reading for that. And she quotes the great Anna Ahkmatova – how many American writers do that?

Thank you, Kristin Hannah, and thank you, James Lee Elliott, for good parenting, good pharmacy-ing, good reading, and good fun.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and make perpetual Light to shine upon him.”

Image copyrighted by St Martin’s Press.

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