Title: The Monk in the Garden
Author: Robin Marantz Henig
Release date: May 2001
Genre: Narrative nonfiction/biography
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5
TL;DR: Was Gregor Mendel a genius before his time, or just a lucky gardener? How did his work shape the future of science?
From the opening of The Monk in the Garden, Robin Marantz Henig focuses upon characters: their struggles and epiphanies; their mistakes and successes; their fears and motivations.
The monk in question, of course, is Gregor Mendel—known to modern readers as the father of genetics, but almost entirely unknown in his own time.
“The question now is not so much whether the man was a genius but where exactly his genius lay,” Henig states from the beginning of the book (p. 6). Mendel’s genius, however, is not the true focus of the book, or at least not the only one. Henig explores how such a revolutionary idea could have been ignored for so many years; and then shows how Mendel’s work—and the man himself—were exalted by other men in the pursuit of their own ideas and ambitions.
“Mendel might be embarrassed to see himself turned from a quiet, obscure, and brilliant man into the larger-than-life heroic figure he has become today,” Henig writes. “Mendel was a dogged worker, not a hero—and it was his nonheroism that allowed him to do the plodding, patient, thorough work through which his genius emerged” (p. 172-73).
The Monk in the Garden is a fine work of narrative nonfiction, with deeply explored characters and tension that moves the pace along quickly. And Gregor Mendel is not an easy subject. In the absence of letters and documents from the man—his personal effects were burned after his death—Henig relies upon Mendel’s modest publication history, as well as interviews with historians and assertions made in the literature around the monk.
From the beginning, Henig is honest about the educated guesses she will make throughout the book. “To tell the story of Mendel’s life and intellectual flowering requires some educated deduction,” she writes on page 6. Henig revels, to an extent, in this freedom:
Though I have no way of knowing with certainty what our protagonist was doing or thinking at any particular time, I can tell his story, based on circumstantial evidence and the sifting through of scenarios, the way it most probably occurred. (p. 7)
Such a technique is not new to narrative nonfiction storytellers. But Henig pushes the concept to its limits in order to cover up holes in the story and to keep the reader’s attention. Too much of this makes it hard to trust the author. Not only is the reader constantly trying to weigh what is fact and what is conjecture; but scenes like these, so obviously invented, pull the reader out of the narrative—the opposite of the author’s intended effect.
Yet Henig restored much of my confidence by weaving in details that prove her level of research. On page 52, she writes: “Church bells in Vienna ring sweetly musical, nothing like the off-key metallic thud of the Augustinian chapel bells in Bruenn.” These details set scenes well, while also demonstrating that Henig went to these places to research the book (without having her switch to first person, which would have been a mistake). In addition, her website brims with notes to that research. Given the amount of work she did, I’m confident in her speculations.
Recommended for: lovers of biography and narrative nonfiction; budding scientists
Quote of note:
Throughout history, some of the most creative minds have been those capable of maintaining two different mental constructs of the world simultaneously and applying the principles of one model to problems in the domain of the second.
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