Hirt, Jen. Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. Akron, Ohio: Ringtaw Books, 2010.
Stongsville is a rapidly growing western suburb of Cleveland; a town of less than 10,000 residents in 1960 and now a city of over 44,000. I have driven through Stongsville on several occasions and it feels much more like the modern suburb that it has become than the semi-rural town that Jen Hirt’s great-grandfather set up the family’s greenhouse in 1915. Hirt’s collection of essays, Under Glass, is not directly about the changes that have occurred to Strongsville, but it deals with the gradual upheavals and endings that generally follows youth into adulthood.
Though Under Glass has an overarching theme covering four generations of greenhouse keepers and the eventual sale and demolition of the buildings, the writing is very accessible to non-greenthumbed reader. Essays on greenhouse design seamlessly discuss divorce, religion, and death.
Most of the essays are good enough to stand by themselves, but Under Glass as a whole is much better. Unlike a memoir collection by David Sedaris, where the stories can be read (or not read) in any order, Hirt’s selections have a natural flow to them. Though the author states in the introduction that the essays are “each on a theme, not at all chronological’, there is a straight (though expansive) story from the family history and childhood memories told in ‘A Girl with a Thousand Christmas’ to the reflective ‘Near a Fine Woods’, where she completes her grandmothers history of their home; several years after the home has been demolished.
The readability of the collection is enhanced by the varied writing styles used. There is a diverse group of essays in the second half of the collection (“The Grotto of Redemption”, “Best Offer”, and “Ricinus Communis”) that almost leave the greenhouse and Ohio (in fact they take place in Iowa and the Pacific Northwest). ”Grotto” is a spiritual travel essay. ”Ricinus” starts as a case study on a federal ricin trial, with peripheral connections to Hirt’s family greenhouse, and evolves into a debatable question of fairness. And finally, a personal favorite, “Best Offer” is a coming-of-age type of story of selling the car her parents bought for her with uncertainty. The story ends with the perfect image of Hirt leaving the dealership with no ride.
An important element of storytelling for the enjoyment of the readers is having the writer connect with the consumer, but at the same time giving the reader something new. This is usually done (though hard to master) through universal truths such as growing-up, families (or lack of family), and death. I am sure you can think of a few memoirs that deal with these topics. The creative trick is to frame the story. Hirt has used her greenhouse background (and extensive research in the history of the business) to relate a few years of her life on paper. And there is much to learn about greenhouses here. With the right writer, it can be a joy.
Under Glass is the second Gen-X memoir (or collected personal essays) about growing up in Ohio I have come across. I have found that a non-universal rule for enjoying The other being Donnell Alexander’s Ghetto Celebrity, which includes a very different social-economic background in Sandusky. I would be interested to see if any other narratives are out there of this age. If you read this and know of any, please let me know. There are book clubs to form.