As journalist Carol Wall was birthing her first book — dealing with copyedits, planning for publication — she was dying: the cancer she had beaten into remission years earlier was back. She would be gone just a few months after her book debuted, to glowing reviews. Her husband, Dick, a lawyer, had helped her through the pre-pub work while treatment was fogging her brain, and before she died, she told him, “Take care of our book.”
So he did.
For his third feature documentary, filmmaker Phil Wall — Carol and Dick’s son — hit the road with Dick on his 2015 tour across wide swathes of the US to promote Carol’s book, a memoir called Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening. It’s not about gardening. “The garden is a metaphor,” Dick explains to the book lovers who come out to meet him. What it is about is among the things Wall holds back from revealing all at once, though we don’t even realize he’s doing anything of the kind, at first. Only gradually do we come to see that Wall has beautifully structured this tale — the slow unfolding of the book, of Carol and Dick’s life together, and of Dick’s journey through grief — for maximum poignance.
An audience- and jury-award winner at 2020’s Austin Film Festival, The Book Keepers is a deeply moving film: it’s honest, vulnerable, and hopeful. Dick’s book tour is both a metaphor and a concrete thing, too, a process of gentle, active mourning, of accepting tragedy and engaging with sorrow, of running with what life throws at you and forging a new beginning out of it. It all the stages of grief as a path, as — well! — a garden to be cultivated. It’s not a straight path, and occasional weeding is necessary: Dick is constantly revisiting his wife’s illness and death, over and over again, with those who come out to meet him, which seems both harrowing and helpful to him. (He’s a charming man to spend time with.) And there are the usual frustrations of a book tour as well: sometimes no one shows; sometimes the people who show are not book people, and so finding a connection is tough.
Wall uses a recurring conceit to label the stops on Dick’s book tour: “Montana (2,067 miles from home),” for instance. It feel tenderly ironic to me: all of these places are indeed distant from the physical house Dick and Carol lived in together. But every bookstore he walks into with a stack of her books to commune with people who love her writing? That is home.
And — oh yeah — I’ve now added Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening to my to-read pile.