A trailblazer’s history for kids

Jennie Butchart: Gardener of Dreams 
by Haley Healey (illustrated by Kimiko Fraser)

Victoria: Heritage House, 2024
$19.95 / 9781772034813

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


The beautifully illustrated and bound book brings us to the threshold of Victoria’s world-famous Butchart Gardens with the goal of educating young readers about one of BC’s “trailblazing women.” Does it succeed? Only a focus group of four- to eight-year-olds, the intended audience, can tell us how well. 

Nanaimo writer Haley Healey (Her Courage Rises) opens the book with a splash of floral splendour redolent of a nineteenth-century wallpaper pattern from William Morris. Bees are buzzing. Buds are busting out. Flowers of all colours and sized shout out at the reader.

Author Haley Healey

Despite great promise, the story quickly shifts to the background of Ontario-born Jennie, skipping over the loss of her parents, then to her marriage. She has two daughters and works as a chemist in her husband’s cement factory; the factory fails and leaves a big hole where a limestone quarry once existed.  

Illustrator Kimiko Fraser (photo: J King York)

So far, neither the text nor the illustrations seems inspirational to a child. Still, there is the problem of what to do with the big hole. Though that could inspire hands eager to dig dirt, the young reader must be satisfied to watch Jennie create her garden with the help of a landscape architect and some local botanists.

Here we see Kimiko Fraser illustrating the workers planting as Jennie selects pansies, marigolds, and petunias. Widely travelled, Jennie brings home seeds from all over the world and soon we see her amidst “poppies from Asia [with] bright blue and yellow centres.”

Those who have visited the gorgeous gardens will recognize the painterly representations of Jennie’s creations: the Japanese Garden, Sunken Garden, Italian Garden, Rose Garden. These are world-famous thanks to her ingenuity and her sponsorship of such a vast enterprise.

One of Kimiko Fraser’s illustrations of the early days of Butchart Gardens

Young readers learn how Jennie kept the gardens running during the Second World War, how she harvested bouquets for friends, and how she maintained a tearoom for guests. As the chronology shows, Jennie died in 1950, but the gardens continued to flourish. In 2004, it was designated a National Historic Site.

Today, the gardens are still owned and run by the family. Millions of visitors enjoy what Jennie cultivated out of her backyard limestone quarry. Hers is worthy of a place in the Trailblazing Canadians series.  

A panorama of the gardens, courtesy of Kimiko Fraser

One wants to be kind to this book. It is, after all, a lovely celebration of the notable contribution of one of Victoria’s prominent citizens. It is also part of a Heritage House series that highlights the contributions of other trailblazers. Author Healey and illustrator Fraser have also published books about a Japanese Canadian pioneer, an aviatrix, and stories of Vancouver Island women.   

So let’s be kind, yes, but I am left with the nagging thought that this is not a book that is really meant for four- to eight-year-olds. There is little for them to do but watch as Jennie unfolds her magical garden. No popup scenes. Few images of children. Perhaps its saving grace is that young girls might aspire to achieve their own dreams just as Jennie became the ‘gardener’ of her dreams. 

But as a brief history of the historical 120-year-old Butchart Gardens, most young readers will need to go elsewhere for a romp in the soil, vines, peacocks, irrigation ditches, and hidden corners of this most Victorian of landmarks.


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. [Editor’s note: Ron has recently written two essays for BCR regarding British Columbia links to the film industry: Hello Oscar, Eh! and When Hollywood Calls. He reviewed books by Keith G. Powell, Geoff Mynett, John Farrow, Andrea Warner, Barry Gough, Elaine Ávila, and Ken McGoogan for BCR; he also contributed an essay about trade unionist Harvey Murphy.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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