Leota’s Garden

by Francine Rivers

Conditional Recommendation: An old lonely lady, her bitter daughter, and her loving granddaughter navigate family secrets and redemption in this moving story.

Age: Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Hardcover: 423 pages
Publisher: Tyndale (1999)

Genre: Christian Contemporary

This is the type of book that you get more out of it every time you read it. It’s excellent because the story is told from a unique perspective (an 84-year-old woman) and it realistically explores the roles of bitterness, secrets, and God in family dynamics. I greatly enjoyed how Francine Rivers captures the intricacies of familial relationships. This book is more subtle and slow-paced compared to many of her other books (such as The Mark of the Lion series) but the storytelling is no less engrossing and I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a good read rooted in reality.

Summary from the Publisher

Once Leota’s garden was a place of beauty—where flowers bloomed and hope thrived. It was her refuge from the deep wounds inflicted by a devastating war, her sanctuary where she knelt before a loving God and prayed for the children who couldn’t understand her silent sacrifices. At eighty-four, Leota is alone, her beloved garden in ruins. All her efforts to reconcile with her adult children have been fruitless. She voices her despair to a loving Father, her only friend. And God brings a wind of change through unlikely means: one, a college student who thinks he has all the answers; the other, the granddaughter Leota never hoped to know. But can the devastation wrought by keeping painful family secrets be repaired before she runs out of time?

An Enduring Theme

Redemption – Many characters experience a form of redemption by the story’s end. Each one starts out in a state they are eventually saved out of—be it from loneliness to love, bitterness to forgiveness, or ignorance to knowledge. The theme of redemption is numerous and varied throughout this book.

Love & Family – The bonds of family is perhaps the most significant theme of the book. Familial love is upheld and portrayed as life-giving—romantic love plays a very small part in the story and I think it only serves to center the attention on familial love. Annie’s love for her grandmother is honorable and good; because of it she seeks to do what is best for Leota no matter the cost to herself even if it means going against the rest of her family.

Generational Consequences – This is my best attempt at naming this theme. Throughout the book runs the idea that the experiences and choices of a generation trickle down and affect generations that come after. Leota’s choice to not explain herself to her children trickles down to not only affect them but also her grandchildren. It’s an uncommon theme that inspires further thought.

Goodness and Truth

About a third of the way into the book, Leota attends church for the first time in many years. She’s warmed by the friendliness and the sense of genuine affection the church-goers seem to have with one another even though they’re obviously from different backgrounds. This is an excellent scene as Leota displays good discernment as the Pastor preaches a message that doesn’t quite line up with the Bible.

“She was familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes. She knew the passage very well. Yet none of what the pastor said seemed to apply to her. She wished he had stuck to the Scripture instead of going off on what everyone ought to be doing to change the world. If she had learned one thing in her long life it was to put less stock in what the world was doing and more in getting right with the Lord. It took God to change a heart. A changed heart meant a changed life. Enough of them and then, maybe, God willing, the world would change. Yet it seemed unlikely. From all she had read in the Bible over the past years, the world was winding down. Nothing was going to get better. It was going to get a whole lot worse. And then it would end in fire.

She supposed this young pastor was talking about the meantime. He wanted everyone to work hard to try to change things for the better while the world waited for Jesus to come back.

The thought exhausted her.

She was past the age of being involved, being active, making any difference in the world. The truth was, she didn’t care anymore. Let the fire come. She was closer to a time to die than anything else. She didn’t fault the young pastor for his zeal, for his great hop of seeing a cleaner, safer, more loving community. But hadn’t he read Revelation?” (pgs 158-159)

Isn’t this perspective interesting? How would sermons apply when you’re “closer to a time to die than anything else”? Would they? Are pastors teaching according to the Bible or according to their own ideas and agendas? I love that she thinks through what she hears and doesn’t simply swallow it whole. She chews on it by asking very good questions. Leota compares what she’s hearing to what she knows the Bible says—this is how Christians are supposed to hear teaching according to Acts 17:11 which describes what the Bereans did when they heard Paul preach: “…they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” What the character does in this scene lines up with Scripture and it’s great.

Francine Rivers likes to use her books to preach to the reader by including long dialogues of one character summarizing to other characters the Bible from creation to Jesus’ resurrection. In this book, Leota and Annie are hosting some neighbors for Halloween and Annie entertains the children by telling them the true story of how evil came to be in the world. Many events of the Old Testament are glossed over or not mentioned at all. The summary is good and Rivers maintains the sense of scene by having the neighbors interact with the story and Leota’s mind wanders as Annie talks. This dialogue spans several pages and is Biblically accurate—even how one is saved! Annie finishes storytelling by saying, “Anyone who believes in Jesus will never perish, but have everlasting life with Him. Those who believe will shed their bodies and join Him in paradise.” (pg. 264)

These scenes are great and much of the spiritual content in the day-to-day story is good and accurate. However, some passages unfortunately contain confusing spiritual content and I discuss those in the Recommendation Note section below.

Memorable Characters

This story is told from several points of view: 84-year-old Leota Reinhardt, her daughter Nora, her 18-year-old granddaughter Annie, and college-student Corban Solsek who helps Leota each week. Each perspective adds a new layer to the plot and keeps the story engaging and interesting.

Leota Reinhardt – a very lonely woman, burdened by the broken relationships of her family and the secrets she has kept from them, her only companion is God. She barely leaves her house and leads a lifeless life…not unlike her beloved garden which age has prevented her from tending. I love her close relationship with God—she talks to him like a friend throughout the book—and her unique perspective on the world and life. Reading her character gives insight into what life might be like for the elderly and, for young adults who still have much to learn about life, I think her point of view is valuable and eye-opening. It’s also uplifting to read how love brings her back to life.

Corban Solsek – portrayed as smart but spoiled—someone whose views need to be challenged. Who could be more up to the challenge than a feisty 84-year-old Leota? At first, Leota is just a project to him, a means to an end. He hates everything about her from her dilapidated home to her quick tongue. He’s cynical, worldly and unsaved but never portrayed as the villain. He’s just portrayed as young and in need of salvation and wisdom. He is the common person in this day and age and his input in the story greatly contrasts that of Leota and Annie.

Anne-Lynn “Annie” Gardner (18-year-old, college freshman) – the daughter who wants to do right by her mother but at the same time can’t cope under her mother’s control and manipulation. I love that she does what she does as unto the Lord and not to men. For example, people give Annie the advice that she should forget her mother, never speak to her again and live her own life but Annie desires to honor her mother and have a relationship with her. Throughout the book we see evidence that she’s kind-hearted, mature and willing to reach out to others in love. She’s an outstanding moral character who brings life and light back into Leota’s life.

Eleanor “Nora” Gaines – Leota’s daughter who, poisoned by bitterness, sees her as little as possible. I’m fascinated by how accurately Francine Rivers captured the speech, actions, and reactions of a manipulative person. Nora blames everyone else for her problems, never takes responsibility for herself, is selfish, controlling, holds grudges, lies to get her way or get back at someone—just an all-around miserable character that drives much of the story’s conflicts.

Well-Conceived Plot

This story is slow-paced (I don’t say that as a criticism) and the plot is rich because of the intertwined relationships, goals, and secrets of the many characters.

Recommendation Note

Despite some really good Biblical content there are also some blunders.

In one scene, Nora seeks out counseling from her pastor and through the course of their conversation I get the impression that the pastor doesn’t know whether Nora is saved or not. He tries to clarify by asking what she believes about Jesus Christ but she dodges the question and diverts the conversation. Pastor Bernie’s advice only gets more confusing after that because it’s unclear whether he’s talking in the context of salvation (justification) or the Christian life (sanctification) or if the author even recognizes a distinction between the two. Here are two confusing quotes from this scene:

“God doesn’t want part of you now and then, Nora. He wants all of you all the time. That’s what it means to ask Jesus into your heart.” (pg. 180)

  1. Asking Jesus into your heart is not biblical. It is not a means to salvation nor does it apply in the Christian life. In fact, this phrase comes purely from the religion of Christianity and not the Bible itself. It should be stricken from the record of Christian terminology as false and misleading for it confuses the true response to the Gospel.
  2. “God doesn’t want part of you now and then…He wants all of you all the time.” If this is about the Christian life then we could definitely find some application; however, it’s confusing because we don’t know if he’s talking about salvation or the Christian life. If the context is salvation, then this makes it sound like to be saved or to stay saved all of you needs to be given to Christ and some is not enough. This confuses salvation so much—we do not give ourselves and if we did how would we even begin to measure it? Salvation is about believing not about anything we give or do for God.

“I’m a pastor, Nora. It’s my calling to try and draw a lost lamb back into the flock.” (pg. 180)

Again, the distinction between salvation (justification) and the Christian life (sanctification) isn’t clear which makes for confusing interpretations of the pastor’s words. Does “lost” mean unsaved? If so, an unsaved person doesn’t come back to the flock because they were never part of it in the first place. Does “lost” mean carnal? This assumes the person is saved and if that’s the case they need to be brought back to the Shepherd, not the flock. Anyway, the meaning is unclear.

Besides the doctrinal blunders, most of the unsavory content in this book is simply the common worldliness of unsaved characters such as:

  • Corban and Ruth are college students who live together. It’s made clear they got together because of lust and continue to have a relationship so that Corban can enjoy Ruth’s body. Ruth uses Corban for his wealth and to secure a nice roof over her head. Though lust and sex are discussed, there are no scenes of it.
  • Ruth spouts feminist viewpoints and hosts feminist group meetings at their house.
  • Ruth gets pregnant with Corban’s baby and has an abortion without consulting him. (pg 229-232) Corban is completely torn up and disgusted with her for doing it—it serves as a wake-up call to him about the state of their relationship and himself as a person.

This book’s love story is between a grandmother, her children, and her grandchild but there are minor romantic threads regarding Annie. She has to deal with Sam Carter, her roommate’s brother, and his attraction and pursuit of her and her being attracted to him even while she’s convinced before God that for now she should be single. When they discuss it in her apartment, libido is mentioned and they kiss but Annie puts the brakes on and nothing more happens.

An interesting issue appeared in the book that I wasn’t expecting: euthanasia of the elderly. A hospital employee believes he’s performing a service to the suffering patients he sees by taking it upon himself to secretly end their lives.

A Lasting Experience

If you get hooked into this story the experience will linger. It’s moving, heartfelt, full of trials, conflicts, and ultimately, hope.

A Satisfying Ending

It’s a bittersweet end but hope remains. Leota’s garden is blooming, being shared with others, and taking on a new life under the care of Annie’s loving hands.

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