In Japanese Zen gardens, nature is artfully represented through the harmonious placement of differently sized stones, meticulously raked gravel and moss, and shielding evergreens and hedges. Its beauty is quiet, refined, and suggestive. The spiritual aim of the design is to create a sanctuary that will foster reflection, meditation, and peace of mind. Aesthetically and spiritually, maintaining the garden is an act of reverence for nature and God.
Writer Maxine Trottier and illustrator Paul Morin delicately and movingly evoke the essence and aesthetics of the Zen garden in Flags. In this picture book, Trottier, who has authored, among others, the award-winning The Tiny Kite of Eddie Wing, tells the story of young Mary's friendship with her grandmother's next door neighbour, Mr. Hiroshi, in the summer of 1942 in a B.C. coastal town. The adult Mary, now back in her prairie home, recalls that bittersweet, unforgettable summer with a sense of poignant appreciation and sorrow.
The start of the summer was as lovely as an idyll could be. Mary was captivated by the striking beauty of the Pacific coast, and nourished by the affectionate company of her grandmother and the kind, patient Mr. Hiroshi. She was especially taken with his garden, hidden from view by cedars and hedges. The cool peacefulness of this secret sanctuary was a welcome respite from the heavy summer heat and Mary was only too happy to help him rake its sand and moss, to clip the weeds which grew between the stones, and to feed the ever greedy koi in the pond surrounded by small, blue irises, called flags.
A destructive current was flowing under this tranquil idyll, however. Mary's grandmother grew increasingly worried about the fate of Mr. Hiroshi, now that the government had begun deporting Japanese Canadians to internment camps, claiming that they posed a threat to national security. Twenty thousand were placed in camps for the duration of the war. The government then seized their homes and businesses, selling them off for paltry sums.
The mood of serenity entwined with melancholy elegy is subtly reinforced by Morin's luminous, haunting pictures of moonlight shimmering over the Pacific coast, dappled light illuminating the mysterious green paradise of Mr. Hiroshi's garden in the late afternoon, and the fiery glow of the setting sun on the evening Mr. Hiroshi told Mary he had to leave the next day, and she promised to take care of the garden until his return.
When he didn't return and the house was sold, Mary took a stone and two iris bulbs from the garden to plant in the prairies, in honour and in memory of Mr. Hiroshi. "It was a small thing. But then a garden must begin somewhere."
The feeling of loss, injustice, and disharmony-social and natural-is made all the more compelling by the quiet lyricism and eloquent understatement of the text and pictures. Trottier's story and Morin's paintings, like a Zen garden, provoke thought and reflection on this shameful episode in Canadian history.