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Musings » Where Lilacs Still Bloom
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Kirkpatrick, Jane
Colorado Springs, Colorado
WaterBrook Press 2012

Jane Kirkpatrick is a remarkable woman who has worked hard all her life, given generously to the community and turned herself into a writer of warm, “feel-good”: novels as she moved into retirement. Choosing lilac breeding as the donée of one of these novels is slightly unexpected and rather moving.

Lilac blooms for fairly short periods in the spring, emitting gusts of the sweetest perfume imaginable. It is hardly surprising that this tree and its perfume are considered to be very romantic. Before one even realizes it the blossom has peaked and faded. This mirrors the transience of human life and love while the fragrance endows the plant some feminine overtones.

Two principal species of lilac underpin all the modern cultivars: the Turkish S. vulgaris and the Chinese S. oblata Lindl. This does not exhaust the total list of lilac species but few of the others have played any significant role in Western hybridizing. While it is true there were about 90 cultivars available before 1900 it is agreed that the story starts with the Lemoine lilacs in the 1870s. Right away an often overlooked woman is at center stage: Madame Lemoine herself.

In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war, instigated by the aggressive Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was at its height. Food was desperately short, life was grim and the Lemoines decided to take their minds off their troubles by breeding new varieties of lilac. The lilac flower is small and very hard to work with. Victor Lemoine’s sight was getting weak and his hands were slightly unsteady.

Madame Lemoine was younger. She climbed on the ladders with her paint brush and tweezers and patiently pried each flower open. The following year they planted the meager 7 new seeds which resulted from her work. Before they finished with lilac, the Lemoines, assisted by their son Emile, had bred 129 new cultivars. Almost all of them were commercially viable and rapidly taken up by nurseries all over the world.

Other women should be mentioned. Isabella Preston was an English immigrant to Ottawa in Canada. She too had this irresistible need to breed new flowers and left a series of lilac which remains unsurpassed. Alice Harding was an American woman who devoted herself to peonies and lilac. Her gentle influence was so profound that Emile Lemoine named one of his lilac cultivars for her in 1925. Susan Delano McKelvey, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cousins, wrote an excellent book about lilac history in 1928.

Jane Kirkpatrick opens her novel with the heroine Hulda Klager, an actual person and not a fictional character. Hulda Klager was a farmers’ wife in Woodland, WA, born in Germany and taken to the United States in 1865 as a child of 2. She used Lemoine hybrids in 1905 to create new lilac varieties for herself. It is clear she had much the same sort of drive which led Lemoine and so many others to continue their work in the face of great obstacles and challenges. Hulda knew she wanted deep red lilac and a creamy version too. She could see them in her head.

Before turning to lilac Mrs Klager had started to hybridize apples for a simple mundane reason. She was tired of spending too much time peeling small unproductive apples to make pies for her family and thought larger ones would be easier to handle. Her father had taught her some of the necessary skills to achieve her ends though he was dubious about the effect on her marriage if she succeeded too well.

Mrs Klager had initially bought 7 Lemoine hybrid lilacs at considerable expense but after runaway horses destroyed her garden, she only had ‘Mme. Casimer Peier’, ‘President Grévy’ and a German plant, ’Andenkanden an Ludwig’, left. She did create numerous handsome lilac cultivars but it required all the energies and resourcefulness of the Hulda Klager Lilac Society to keep her fragile legacy alive after she died. Now “Lilac Days” in Woodland, Washington, is an annual event attended by hundreds of visitors each year.

It can be seen from the above comments that I approach the story of Mrs Klager from the point of view of the lilac, whereas Mrs Kirkpatrick looks at it from the human angle. For me the story is so rich in itself it needs no embellishment. Many of the figures I discuss in my new book, Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders, led exceedingly complex lives under their seemingly ordinary exteriors.

We should be grateful to Mrs Kirkpatrick for her recognition that Hulda Klager’s story was important and for the fact that she has brought it to our attention. In this case the means are less important than the end but alas, the novel itself is appalling.

The opening voice is presumably that of Hulda, a relatively uneducated woman, but clumsy stilted dialogue with stale moral truisms masquerade as wisdom. Other characters are introduced, also intended somewhat unconvincingly to be in their own voices.

There are serious lapses of English such as ”dapplng” for “dabbling”, and ”lauded’ when she means ”lorded”. On page 43 a young woman is addressed as ”Ms. Givens” in 1903. It is amazing that a Random House editor did not spot these and other errors. I know this is all trivial and that if the book had succeeded on its own terms could be overlooked.

Meaning well is very important but it does not replace skill and craft. Knowing how sensitive a writer’s soul is I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this book.