Book Review: One Writer's Garden: Eudora Welty's Home Place

by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, 2011.
Reviewed by Linda Askey
One Writer's Garden
One Writer's Garden

In One Writer's Garden, garden designer and historian Susan Haltom and landscape historian Jane Roy Brown weave a story of a garden, a family, and a time period into a book that is sure to please admirers of Eudora Welty's fiction and photography as well as fans of garden history. Haltom and Brown use Welty's garden in Jackson, Mississippi, as the lens for examining the author's life and the historical and societal changes in the 20th century that influenced her work.

"Miss Eudora," as Welty was known, was both a Southern regional treasure and a nationally recognized writer. Her novel, The Optimist's Daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.She was well-educated —at the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University in New York City —and well-traveled. Perhaps because she spent so much time away from home, her garden helped anchor her life and became a source of inspiration and memories for her writing.

The culmination of more than a decade of work, One Writer's Garden taps into the research required for the garden's painstaking restoration. By the mid-1990s, little remained of the garden —originally designed by Welty's mother, Chestina — that was planted some 70 years earlier.

The research for the restoration and for the book was initially informed by conversations between Haltom and Welty before the latter's death in 2001. Later, the authors tapped journals, family photographs, and correspondence —snippets of which are included in the book. They also interviewed some of Welty's family members and friends. Combined, these sources provide fascinating insights into 20th-century trends, suburban life in Mississippi, and the gardens that surrounded similar homes of the period.

The Welty garden evolved through the decades, influenced by historic events and societal developments such as the Great Depression, World War II, the advent of garden clubs and automobiles, and the surrender of the front yard as a public space. This is not a history grown dusty and remote —evidence of this period can still be gleaned from homes and gardens in older neighborhoods —it is part of our living landscape history. It is familiar enough to be accepted unquestioned, but not always thoroughly understood without the aid of the research and well-informed commentary provided in books like this one.

One Writer's Garden is a sparkling, multifaceted work rich in regional personalities, plants, and events that gardeners, with or without a telltale drawl, will relish. It is an important work of garden literature —not to mention a good read.

This review was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of The American Gardener magazine.

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