The Next Chapter

Antanas Sileika on the gardening memoir that's about way more than gardening

Columnist Antanas Sileika on Unearthed by Alexandra Risen, and how restoring a backyard can dig up family truths.
Alexandra Risen takes on the double task of confronting an untamed garden and a painful history. (Chris Frampton)

Alexandra Risen bought a house on a ravine in Toronto with an acre of neglected garden. Her backyard was choked with weeds, studded by crumbling paths and buildings. Instead of letting it return to nature, Risen decided to restore it over a period of 10 years, and as she was rebuilding the garden she went about the project of reconstructing pieces of her own life. The story is told in her memoir, Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden. Here's what our columnist Antanas Sileika had to say about the book.

The story behind the story

It's a twin story that goes on in this book. Not only is she trying to bring back an impossible place — it's a steep slope behind her new house, overgrown with crazy, dead things, beautiful things and bad things — so this project is very tough, but she [Risen] herself is tough. She takes you down parallel paths, they start to intertwine, mainly her family history and what happens in that acre of land.

Digging into a family past 

Risen doesn't like her past very much, she doesn't like her parents very much, they're Ukrainian immigrants who ended up in Saskatchewan. Dad was a very silent man, he would not respond to a "good morning" in the morning and she dislikes him so much at the beginning of the book that his love for apples makes her hate them. Her mother spent a lot of time in the garden. They [Risen's parents] never provided her with what I call the Disney version of parenting, so she's resentful about them and she's curiously aggressive. 

Little by little we discover she opens up her heart in a way to her parents. Her goal is to finish the garden in time to bring her mother, but her mother is fading fast. As the garden is being developed the author is finding out more and more about her past, and getting more interested in it. 

Building a mystery

Risen is a very smart writer, she treats the backyard the way a mystery writer treats a story; you're on a voyage of discovery. It awakened in me the childhood sense of exploration I used to have. There seem to be various treasures that are planted throughout the place that have been let go.

Antanas Sileika's comments have been edited and condensed.