Annotation by Jennifer McCharen
I’ve never read a book like this. A mix of narrative nonfiction and poetry, Wildflowers in the Median was written by, and tells the story of, two people thrown together by tragedy, who transform that tragedy through their friendship and through writing.
Leonard Scovens murdered Agnes Furey’s daughter and grandson. The grandson was six years old. Leonard plead guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Agnes did not press for the death penalty, but instead took her shattered life and tried to rebuild. Then, she did something radical: she forgave Leonard.
Agnes’s and Leonard’s story unfolds through chapters that alternate between their two voices, and little is revealed in a linear narrative. Instead, we get moments captured in Agnes’s poetry, an essay from Leonard about what it was like to be beaten as a child, then Agnes’s statement to the court in Leonard’s murder trial, and at about the halfway point in the book, letters from Leonard to Agnes.
The letters are what makes the book truly incredible. As pieces of writing, they are perhaps less interesting than other sections of the book. Leonard’s essays and poems thrum with verbal energy and a striking, unique voice. Agnes’s poetry, while simple, reveals something so mundane as to be extraordinary: the poetry of a non-poet, of a regular human being forced to grapple with the darkest struggle any of us ever has to face. But the letters are heart-stopping, not so much for their beauty of prose, but for the beauty of the reason they exist at all, which is that, despite all he had done, Agnes reached out to Leonard in prison, and offered him compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
The correspondence in the book is Leonard’s letters to Agnes as he was unable to save her letters to him when he was transferred to another prison in 2005. This is yet another tragedy, but for the book it’s kind of a good thing. Leonard is a somewhat more interesting writer than Agnes. The singleness of voice helps the book stay focused. And more importantly, it is Leonard’s journey of redemption that is the fascinating one. But that might be because Agnes’s journey is, comparatively, still a mystery. In response to Leonard’s letters, we get poems that Agnes wrote at the time, and these insights are so different from his long, complex insights. We see Agnes healing, we share little poignant memories with her, but with Leonard we get to go on the entire roller coaster of the redeemed sinner – a story near and dear to the heart of our culture whether we’re believers or not.
Through their writing, we witness something truly remarkable: the transcendence of unthinkable evil by two people nobody would have expected to be able to understand each other. The murderer and the bereaved mother are almost archetypes in their resonant power. But instead of a story of revenge, we witness a completely radical story of something much messier, two people doing the devastatingly hard work of trying to see where the other is coming from.
What strikes me most about this book as a work of nonfiction is the simple fact of its existence. More than a work of literature composed by a writer, this book is evidence of the potential of the human spirit. As a work of writing, I am struck by its simplicity, and its urgency. These two writers are egoless, unselfconscious, and they know what matters. There are no flourishes of prose, no showing off. They use words deftly and carefully, as a tool for overcoming the darkest hours of their lives. Together.
I can barely stomach the thought of trying to emulate this text, which I strive to do with most texts I admire. It is a work of art born of necessity in peculiar circumstances and it could never be emulated without those circumstances, so how could I ever ask for such an experience to befall me?
Although the situation that led to Wildflowers in the Median is far from my own life, even I feel healed and enlightened by its power. This text speaks to me as a writer, giving clear marching orders. It tells me to seek out stories that matter. And if possible, perhaps help such stories to be born.