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When we read a work of fantasy we occasionally wonder what it is about the story that reflects the life and heart of its author. This sometimes tantalizing question is built into the structure of The Chess Garden, a first novel by Brooks Hansen, a young Harvard graduate. Hansen deftly arranges his tale in many layers, historical and fantastic. The determination of how one layer interprets another becomes the reader's appointed quest.
The central figure throughout the book is a brilliant research physician, Gustav Uyterhoeven, who emigrates from Europe to America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Gustav and his wife, Sonja, take up residence in Dayton, Ohio, and soon charm the townspeople by establishing a public garden next to their house where any and all may wander by to play a variety of board games with one another. Chief among these games is chess, at which the doctor is an acknowledged master. The garden also becomes the site of concerts, lectures, teas, and readings. It grows into the cultural, and perhaps even the spiritual, center of the town-a miniature, ongoing Chautauqua.
At the end of the century, when the good doctor is 77 years old, he leaves home for South Africa, there to serve in the refugee camps maintained by the British for Boer families made homeless by the war. He is interested to do this because he is both Dutch and English by heritage. He is also interested because it was here, in South Africa, that he experienced a dramatic midlife conversion in the presence of a Swedenborgian missionary. And he is interested out of simple compassion, even though his mystical faith teaches a certain detachment from the world. According to Doctor Uyterhoeven, "Perfect compassion will eventually learn perfect detachment and acceptance; and conversely, perfect detachment will learn compassion."
Once in South Africa, Uyterhoeven sends a series of 12 letters back to his wife in Dayton, over the course of nearly a year. The letters never once refer to the ...