Book Review: 'Cabbage Requiem' will take root in your soul

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The whole thing started with a problem: What do you do with an overabundance of homegrown cabbage?

George Konert is the sort of character who grows on you. Just like his cabbages and other assorted vegetables, his foibles, conversations with his late wife Grace, and fond reminiscences of days gone by will take root in your soul. But don’t be fooled! George is no senile senior citizen, nor is he a recluse.

As you follow his adventures with his neighbors and his family members, a life that once seemed dried up and at a dead end starts to blossom in unexpected ways. George’s continual forays into his vegetable garden seem to mirror the changes taking place in his life, and you’ll find yourself drawn into it from one escapade to another. Without sugarcoating any of the sorrows or meanness that one encounters in everyday life, author R. L. (Ray) Paul manages to keep the story upbeat and positive, with endearing touches of humor along the way.

As the story unfolds, George meets some unforgettable characters who spice up his life. Finally, he has an epiphany that reveals a long-kept family secret—not without pain, but he gains a new understanding that leaves him richer in the end. Even the chapter titles reflect the steps in preparing for and cultivating a garden, as George goes through similar stages in his personal life. This very human, elderly man with all his flaws and physical limitations, is just the type of personality you could enjoy a visit with—and his down-to-earth humor will give you more than a few chuckles.

Author Ray Paul graciously granted an interview to The Rock River Times. Here are some of his personal reflections.

TRRT: What inspired you to write this book?

Paul: This started about five years ago. I was writing short stories. I had about 22. Over the course of two years, I wrote a couple stories about an older man doing things, and something clicked… I thought I might have enough to start a longer work. All of a sudden, it became a novel. But I really liked the characters. The trick for me was putting it together so that it was a readable story. I liked the kids and the main character, George, and Gert and a lot of the female characters. I liked the way it ended up. I can’t say it went by design. I had George, and he kept doing things. I kind of went where George went.

TRRT: Are any of the characters based on people you knew?

Paul: Not really. The only “true” character is Jake. He was a friend of mine, but most of what he did in the story was not true—it’s made up. But there are elements of my father and lots of people in it. The one I can point to with pride is…the part where, with his first wife, they went to the Benny Goodman concert, but when he comes home, he tells Grace that he will marry her someday. I did the same thing [with my wife]—we were serving on a committee together.

TRRT Have you been interested in gardening as a hobby?

Paul: I’ve had a vegetable garden every year. I’ve had three homes in Rockford since 1960. I’ve lived here since I was 4 years old. I always had a vegetable garden.

Ray Paul wants to give special credit to Christine DeSmet, author and screenwriter, his writing coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “She was very instrumental in keeping me on track,” he recalled. “She was very helpful, and she read through it at different times, different parts. And she kept saying, ‘It’s been too long since we’ve seen the kids—get the kids in.’” She also encouraged him to write the final chapter just to bring it all together.

Like his character George, Paul took some simple steps and kept going. “I started 10 years ago and took a course at the Center for Learning in Retirement at Rock Valley,” he said. “It was a bunch of older people, and I just got turned on to it. Subsequent to that, I took some courses at Rockford College and Rock Valley and some seminars at Wisconsin and Iowa. It’s been a very recent thing…I took some creative writing because I enjoyed it.”

Cabbage Requiem is available from Helm Publishing, 3923 Seward Ave., Rockford, IL 61108, or call (815) 398-4660, or Web site Retail price is $16.95.

From the July 27-Aug. 2, 2005, issue

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