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“Elias, are you all right?”
My hearing slowly begins to return and I realize that it is not the voice of an angel. It is my father.
“My son,” he says as he scoops me in his arms. “Can you stand?”
I nod and he cradles me hard for several moments before gently setting me down and steadying me as I regain my balance. I raise my head slightly and the first thing I see is Kamal and the other soldier. They are lying on the ground a few feet away. Next to them is the boy with the burn marks who’d been thrown to the ground earlier. The soldiers’ and the young boy’s limbs are splayed at odd angles, and shards of glass and pieces of wood are sticking out of their still bodies.
I look back toward my father, sensing his question.
“Where’s Moussa?” he asks, his eyes darting wildly around the room?”
I turn and point a scraped arm toward the door to the patient rooms. But the door is no longer there. And beyond, as if they were in a house of cards, the rooms have collapsed in on themselves. I feel myself fainting and Baba catches me. He drops to his knees, me in his arms, and begins to weep, his tears drawing tracks through the powder on his cheeks.
In the opening scene of The Garden, 15-year-old Elias and his younger brother, Moussa, are hiding in an underground shelter in their garden, playing thought games to try to take their minds off the gunfire going on around them. When Elias asks what his brother’s favourite flower is, young Moussa, a budding artist, picks the jasmine. Elias reflects that flowers need sunshine to grow but thinks: “Right now there is no sunshine in Syria.”
Author Meghan Ferrari, a Toronto teacher with a Master’s degree in Social Justice Education, wrote this novel to raise awareness of the plight of newcomers to Canada who arrive traumatized and then face the challenge of finding homes and jobs and dealing with discrimination. (The family in the story is fortunate in being able to speak English.) Ferrari’s research for the novel included news articles, United Nations reports and many conversations with her students and others in the Syrian community in Canada.
The chapters alternate in setting, first between Syria and Canada, then between a refugee camp in Lebanon and Canada. One might expect the Syria and Lebanon sections to be presented in the past tense, with the Canadian sections in the present, but the entire novel is in the present. Switching back and forth from then to now is a smart narrative choice, not only because it allows for cliff-hangers that make readers want to read on, but also because it gives readers a respite after chapters full of action, drama and tension. Many of the tense scenes take place in Syria, but the Canadian scenes are not all benign. In the second chapter, readers see Elias being bullied by young punks in his math class after he gets a high mark. When two well-meaning classmates, Liling and Sullivan, subsequently approach Elias in the cafeteria and try to make friends, he is uncommunicative, inwardly scornful of Canadian ignorance of his country and the troubles he’s seen. Gradually a friendship grows among them.
In the Syria chapters, readers see the boys’ father, Peter, whom they call “Baba”, trying to practice medicine, treating all injured people who come to his clinic, regardless of what side they’re on in the war. Their Mama, Lena, a translator, tells her husband that his work is now too dangerous. When the parents set out to get some humanitarian food aid, they tell their sons to stay indoors. Moussa, however, is drawing a serin (a bird in danger because the local environment is ruined) and wants to go out and take a look at its colours. When the boys venture out of doors, soldiers appear, grab Moussa and hit Elias over the head with a revolver. They are held at their father’s clinic which the soldiers have captured.
An explosion frees Elias but kills Moussa, and the three remaining members of the family escape to a refugee camp where everyone has been through terrible experiences and all are hoping to be accepted somewhere as refugees. Life in a tent village of traumatized people, a place where knife fights break out at night, further harms Elias’s spirit. He meets a boy his own age who has stopped speaking. Elias’s family are lucky in having an aunt in Toronto will sponsor them, but his friend’s family has no one.
Elias has the advantage of knowing some English, but this does not help him with the youths in his class who bully him. On a field trip to the rink at Nathan Phillips Square, they beat up Sullivan, Elias’ friend, when he goes for hot chocolate. At that, Elias snaps and reacts with violence, first jumping on the attacker’s back, then holding a skate blade to his throat. A passerby peels him away from the assailant and another dials 9-1-1. This dramatic scene is gripping, but missing from it is the teacher who should be supervising the teens’ behaviour. The resolution of the incident seems a bit too good to be realistic.
After a year in Canada, encouraged by the love of Liling and the support of Sullivan, Elias feels positive about his new life. Other characters are succeeding, too. Baba, for instance, is taking refresher courses in order to practice medicine in Canada. The newcomers are all noble, even heroic characters, and with the exception of Mr. Boselli, are highly educated professionals. Liling’s family, for instance, left China because her scientist father didn’t like targeting other countries with missiles. The novel would have been more realistic if the author had included more newcomers from various ethnic groups and some from humbler backgrounds. I would have liked to see Mr. Boselli, who is based on Ms. Ferrari’s grandfather, appear “in scene” rather than merely being referred to.
In her author interview, Ferrari hopes that The Garden will be a “springboard into students’ own narratives” and encourage young people to connect over common ground and become friends.
Ruth Latta’s 2018 novel, Grace in Love, is for grown-ups. Her work-in-progress is about the Manitoba suffrage movement and the “Great War”.