Anger is a powerful motivator. Some people yell; some throw things; others, luckily for readers, write books. That’s how New Orleans writer Katy Simpson Smith came to write her fourth novel – in only four months!
“The Weeds” is a story of two women botanists cataloging the plants growing in the Roman Colosseum, one in 1854, one in 2018. It is a furious, beautiful book about the quest for knowledge and women’s part in that quest, as well as a passionate reminder that the struggle for women’s rights is ongoing.
The idea for this novel had its origin in a remark by Smith’s mother, who had read an article about Richard Deakin’s 1855 “Flora of the Colosseum of Rome," a botanical text of the plants living in the Colosseum.
The number of plants – 420 – stuck in Smith’s mind and gave her the structure for her book. The end result is itself a beautiful flora with short segments and beautiful illustrations by North Carolina artist Kathy Schermer-Gramm.
“The first heroine, the botanical assistant in 1854, is at a melancholy place in her life,” Smith said. “Her true love, a woman, has left her for a traditional marriage. And her coping mechanism is petty thievery. Her father intends to control her fearlessness and her burglary.”
So she is apprenticed to Richard Deakin, whom Smith describes as “a classic great man of science who doesn’t want to get his pants dirty.” Our nameless heroine does the dirty work for him, with no credit, of course.
The present day narrator, also anonymous, is a graduate student from Mississippi, working for an adviser who tells her what to look for, but offers no support for her original work.
Filled with rage
He threatens to relegate her contributions to a footnote. “She is very rage-filled after the loss of her mother, and she needs to learn how to temper her rage and control her power,” Smith said.
"I wrote this book in four months in a rage of my own in 2018,” Smith said. “It was a very different process. Usually I’m pretty slow and I do a lot of research.
"But I felt like these plants were vessels for the state of America. It was when ‘me too’ and the (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanagh hearings were taking place.
"As a result, I tapped into places I hadn’t gone before, but here I let myself go.”
“The Weeds” also offers a powerful lesson about climate change as the contemporary narrator discovers what has been lost over time, and how the plants, even the smallest ones, in the Colosseum have changed.
Vulnerabilities of nature
“I think it's hard to look at the growing vulnerabilities of the natural world around us without feeling some germ of despair.
"So much is changing — some species expanding their range, other species' habitat dissolving — that it can be hard to grasp how radically a collapse will affect us,” she said.
“As we follow these narrators' observations across two centuries, we can see on the smallest level what it means when a plant in the Colosseum is now ‘absent.’ As the contemporary narrator notes, these absences aren't arbitrary. In short, I don't see how you can contemplate climate change without anger. “
Weeds, like women...
Weeds, Smith points out, are like women. “They’re often overlooked or rooted out. The larger they are, the more obtrusive they are, the more trouble in the landscape they become.” It’s clear from her writing that she believes that to be “good trouble.”
Like her previous novel, “The Everlasting,” “The Weeds” ranges through history with ease and grace, now a signature of Smith’s work.
“Oh, it feels godlike! It feels redemptive!” she said.
“I definitely approached both projects with a clear intention of kneading history like dough, but most of the actual play occurred during the writing, when I discovered what my characters were capable of. (Like all humans, they're capable of more than we think!) “
And on that grace note of hope, she leaves her readers contemplating the future – and what they can do about it.