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The Stone Flower Garden    by Deborah Smith order for
Stone Flower Garden
by Deborah Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2002 (2002)

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* *   Reviewed by Martina Bexte

The town of Burnt Sand, North Carolina has been dominated by Hardigree women and the Hardigree Marble Company for decades. Matriarch, Swan Hardigree, oversees the business, her employees, her sisters and her only grand daughter, Darleen Union, with an iron hand. Stories of Swan's family tree and how Hardigree Marble really came into being, abound and read like a sordid soap opera. Yet none utters them aloud for fear of losing their job or their place in the small, tightknit community.

When stone cutter, Jasper Wade, and his family come to Burnt Stand, young 'Darl' finds herself enchanted by Wade's eldest son, Eli, and proceeds to claim him as her own, even though he's from the 'wrong side of the tracks'. She, Eli and her best friend Karen, become inseparable. Their favorite place to meet is in the estate's stone flower garden, resplendent with marble statues and carved stone ... and shared secrets - theirs, and also those from the past. When Eli's teacher discovers he's a mathematics genius, Swan arranges for him to work accounts at the marble company after school, with a further agreement that he go to college, then come back to work for her. Since Eli's father can't pay for such an extravagant education, he agrees.

The children's idyllic days come to an end when Swan's wayward and hedonistic sister, Clara, returns home, demanding money and spreading rumours about Jasper's father, Anthony, also a master stone cutter. She announces to everyone that Anthony had been the Hardigree women's 'male whore' while he lived in Burnt Stand. When Clara disappears and is eventually presumed dead, suspicion falls on Jasper, who, in his fury over Clara's revelations had told her, 'if you were a man, I'd kill you'. When he resists arrest, Jasper is killed. Eli and his family are shattered by the tragedy and forced to leave Burnt Stand. Their departure, and the secret Darl Union carries about what really happened to Clara, comes close to shattering her as well. Twenty five years pass before she and Eli are reunited ... and before the truth about Clara's killer and all the Hardigree family secrets, are finally revealed.

Deborah Smith writes an eloquent tale of southern life, of family secrets and of how these secrets come close to destroying the soul. Most effective is Darl and Eli's love story. Smith's characterizations are rich and realistic, particularly her portrayal of Darl as a young and pampered, yet very lonely child. And of Eli, a brilliant young boy whose poverty is his greatest frustration, while his love and loyalty for his family, and for Darl Union, is his greatest strength. Smith might have added more depth to her story if she'd filled in even a few scenes from her main characters lives during the 25 year gap before Darl and Eli are finally reunited. I also found the writing of Darl's scenes in first person and all the other characters in third, to be sometimes confusing. Overall though, The Stone Flower Garden is a compelling story.

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