Kim is a nine-year old girl who was born in Vietnam and lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Kim stands before an altar that her family has made to mark the anniversary of her father’s death. Her father died when she was just eight months old. Kim cries because she has no memories of her father and fears that he may not even know who she is.
Back in Vietnam, Kim’s father was a farmer. In an effort to connect with him, she decides to plant lima beans, just like she did with her school class. On a cold and lonely Sunday in early April, Kim sneaks out to the vacant lot by her house. There she uses a spoon to dig holes for the beans and she waters them. She vows that she will prove that she’s her father’s daughter and that the beans will thrive.
Meanwhile, Ana, a Romanian woman who has lived in the working-class neighborhood for many years, watches Kim from her window with suspicion. Ana remembers when the neighborhood was mainly inhabited by Romanians. Then they left, as did many later waves of immigrants when the mills and factories closed down. Today it is a very diverse but run-down place plagued by unemployment and violence.
When Ana sees Kim she is sure she must be burying drugs or a gun. She decides to find out by digging up what Kim has buried. But all she finds are the beans. Two of them have sprouted roots and she worries that she’s damaged them. Ana buries the beans again. The following day she calls Wendell, a school janitor and the only other white guy in the building, and tells him to come to her apartment immediately.
Wendell rushes to Ana’s apartment, worried that something bad has happened to her. Ana tells him that the young girl hasn’t showed up in four days and her plants are dying. After examining the plants with binoculars, Wendell, who grew up on a farm, explains that they are beans and the girl planted them too early. Ana has twisted her ankle and she instructs Wendell to water the plants.
Wendell goes to the lot. He sees an old refrigerator reflecting sunlight on the beans and realizes this is the only reason they haven’t frozen. He waters the plants and realizes the girl is watching him. She looks terrified. He shows her he’s only watering the plants and backs away slowly. In the evening he checks on the beans and sees they’re doing well. Wendell decides that while he can’t change the world, he can change that lot. He picks a spot and brings a shovel home from work.
Gonzalo, a teenager who was born in Guatemala, looks after his uncle Juan. Juan is a grown man but since moving to Cleveland, Gonzalo sees him as a baby, since he can’t speak English and can’t work. One day, Juan goes missing and Gonzalo finds him at the vacant lot. He is gesturing to Wendell, who already has a little garden growing. That night, Juan tells Gonzalo’s mother—the only one who understands the Indigenous language he speaks—all about the garden. She buys him seeds and a trowel. Juan and Gonzalo go to the garden and Juan studies the soil and sun. At first Gonzalo is embarrassed. But then he realizes that his uncle is very knowledgeable about growing food, and he sees him as a man again.
One day, Leona, a Black woman who grew up at her Granny’s house in Atlanta, walks by the garden and sees three people working there. She decides she will plant goldenrod, a medicinal herb that her Granny loved. She also decides she will bother government officials until they remove all of the trash from the lot. She calls and calls but they ignore her. So she goes to the Public Health Department with a very smelly bag of trash and opens it in their office. Finally, they grant her a meeting and send men to clean up the garbage.
Sam, an old Jewish man who loves being friendly to others, watches the men clear the garbage from the lot. He wants to plant a garden but he is too old to do the work. So he hires a Puerto Rican teenager to help him. The teen works hard and Sam pays him well and offers him a row, where he decides to plant pumpkins.
Sam begins to notice some problems in the garden. Some neighbors keep throwing trash there and arguments break out. Moreover, the garden is separated along lines of race and nationality, just like the neighborhood itself. One day, a homeless man who used to live in the lot pulls up some plants, leading some gardeners to put fencing around their plots with signs that read “Keep Out.”
One of the most unique features of Seedfolks is the narration style of the novella. Each chapter of the novella reflects the first-person point of view of a different resident of Gibb Street, in the Cleveland neighborhood that provides the setting for Seedfolks. Each narrator comes from a different country and background and has a unique story. Yet each becomes involved in the effort to transform the vacant lot on their street into a community garden.
Fleischman uses a shifting point of view to highlight the diverse perspectives that come together to make up the garden and the neighborhood. No single character or voice can tell the story of the garden or the neighborhood. Rather, it is a patchwork of characters and voices that defines the neighborhood and its residents’ collective efforts.
In this way, Fleischman introduces the theme of identity, along with the related themes of class, race, and immigration. Ana, who has watched the neighborhood change over many years, characterizes it in this way: “This has always been a working-class neighborhood. It’s like a cheap hotel—you stay until you’ve got enough money to leave.” Ana uses a simile—comparing the Gibb Street area to a cheap hotel—to indicate that no one really cares about the neighborhood or wants to live there. Rather, it is only a temporary stopping place for people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.
Moreover, the cheap, run-down status of the neighborhood is not only a matter of class, but also of race and immigration status. Ana describes how successive waves of immigrants have populated the neighborhood for decades. These new residents are just getting started in the United States and this is the only area where they can afford to live. As soon as they are able to move out, they do so, and the next wave of new and economically disadvantaged newcomers takes their place.
The issue of race also comes into play in the author’s characterization of the Gibb Street neighborhood. Ana explains that “Gibb Street became the line between the blacks and the whites, like a border between countries.” Fleischman uses a simile to compare the dividing line to a border between countries in order to highlight how total and harsh this racial division is. Just as members of one country cannot cross the border to another country without providing documents and passing through checkpoints, the reader assumes that black and white residents cannot easily cross Gibb Street to the other side.
Fleischman’s characterization of the neighborhood in terms of class, race, and national origin sets the stage for both the opportunities and the challenges that the community garden presents. On the one hand, the garden represents hope and the possibility for individual and collective transformation. Formerly, the lot was a place that no one cared about and where everyone threw their trash. But Kim’s small, individual action of planting beans sets off a chain reaction that changes the way her neighbors view the lot.
This shift begins on the individual level. First, Wendell realizes that while he is powerless to change many things in his life, he has the power to transform the lot. He decides to channel his energy into this rather than complaining about others. Next, Gonzalo’s uncle, Juan, finally finds a place where his knowledge is useful and valuable, despite the language barriers he faces. More broadly, the lot becomes a place of opportunity, where the residents of Gibb Street have the power to make their own neighborhood a better and more pleasant place.
However, the garden also begins to suffer the same challenges as the neighborhood at large. People divide the garden lots along lines of race and national origin. Fights break out between those who are planting plots and others who continue throwing trash in the lot. And people begin to fence off their individual plots to keep others out. One narrator, Sam, uses a biblical metaphor to describe the way the garden changes for the worse. While he initially sees the garden as a paradise, like the Garden of Eden, he eventually begins to see it as Babel, which God destroys by dividing people. “From Paradise,” Sam says, “the garden was turning back into Cleveland.”