Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Given that 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren in the United States, it’s surprising more fiction hasn’t explored those relationships. Michael Hardesty’s debut novel, The Grace of the Gingko (Old Stone Press, 2015), fills that gap with a heart-warming tale of one grandfather’s tender devotion, a story splashed liberally with humor and stabbed with darkness.
When David Foley’s only son dies soldiering in the Middle East, the 51 year old is so devastated he considers taking his own life. Instead, he moves to Louisville because “the pain from losing the boy [he] had raised alone” since early childhood becomes somewhat “less unbearable” in the presence of his pregnant daughter-in-law. She serves as a “spiritual connection” to his son. The respite is short-lived because she dies giving birth to Liesl. Baby Liesl’s other relatives are mired in situations that make it difficult for them to assume responsibility for rearing the child. Although David, as paternal grandparent, longs to adopt her, others express reservations that a single man—and an atheist, God forbid!—could provide the nurturing and guidance a child needs.
In the end, the family acquiesces to David’s request, and Liesl becomes the cherished focus of his existence. The story follows the grandfather/granddaughter relationship from birth until her marriage, exploring both everyday and transformational moments. During all, David’s wise counsel and love shine like burnished gold. Every human who has loved and raised a child will relate to David’s emotional response to those major moments of transition in Liesl’s journey as they move her closer to the independence we desire and dread for our children. Hardesty captures the contradictions of such moments: the pride a parent feels while watching a child toddle off to kindergarten, along with the simultaneous yearning to stop time and delay their inevitable departure from the nest.
An endearing refrain in the novel is Liesl’s “Poppa, you’re so silly.” By the time Liesl grows into womanhood, she knows words are inadequate to thank this now-elderly man for being her keeper, guardian, mother, father, and “best friend.”
David’s internal musings sometimes provide levity. When he learns that a woman planned the conception of her child and has labor induced so that the baby would be born on Christmas, he thinks, “That’s the most moronic goddamned thing I’ve ever heard.” What he says aloud to the proud grandparents sharing this story is, “Well, I’ll be darned.”
A lover of classical music, David takes Liesl to concerts from the time she is young. He forms a lasting relationship with Justine, who plays violin in the Louisville symphony. But before he discovers this fine musician, David has several other sexual liaisons. Hardesty explores the need for even the most devoted caregiver to enjoy adult conversation and companionship occasionally. His liaisons turn out differently than planned, landing him in hilarious situations.
Through David’s tastes, impressive vocabulary and formal diction, Hardesty creates an educated character of cultured sensibility. Yet despite David’s aesthetics and his exquisite gentleness toward the women in his life, he has little tolerance for lowlifes or criminals. These people provoke what he refers to as “the demon,” an unexpectedly violent side, especially if his granddaughter’s safety is in question. This trait leads to plot twists likely to shock readers.
The title refers to a large gingko tree in the backyard of David’s Louisville home. Through the years, David and Liesl watch the tree grow and note the passing of the seasons, taking solace in its beauty. One aspect they particularly admire is that its autumn foliage turns golden and falls to earth while still radiant. The tree becomes a powerful metaphor for David’s choices.
In clearly rendered prose, Hardesty has given us a compelling exploration of a guardian’s love. He can be forgiven for presenting Liesl with so little nuance. She is the perfectly adorable child who grows into a perfectly wonderful adult. Since the novel’s viewpoint is always David’s, that blind adoration is understandable, and perhaps unavoidable.
In David, Hardesty gives us a character who defies all stereotypes of older men. He is as nurturing as any mother; he is atheist; he has normal sexual appetites; and he acts decisively in totally unexpected ways. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether they consider all his actions moral—which is always one of the pleasures of reading a good book. This is one you’ll want to discuss with others.
The author lives in Louisville, where he is retired from his marketing consulting and branding firm, Black & White. A graduate of the University of Louisville School of Business, he also holds a certificate of creative writing from Stanford University. In addition to writing, he enjoys hobnobbing with his three grandchildren.