By Josette Keelor -- email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- In Jason F. Wright's latest novel, the Northern Shenandoah Valley has a starring role, painted as a place where dreams are realized, souls unite and family is most important.
"The Cross Gardener," which hits bookstores March 2, takes the reader along on an imaginative journey from Winchester to New Market and back as it unfolds the story of a boy who finds his home and purpose at an apple orchard in Strasburg and learns to take the long way as often as possible.
The atmosphere of the book is bright, with images of colorful autumn scenes and portrayals of small town life at every turn.
"The valley is a pretty special place," says Wright, who moved his family to Woodstock three years ago after it became the setting of his novel "The Wednesday Letters."
"The book is a little bit of a gift back to the valley," he says of the new novel.
One of the earliest moments in "The Cross Gardener" shows the main character as a child taking "the long way" back to his father's car so that they can see the firetrucks in the Woodstock firehouse on Court Street.
Wright expects that local readers will recognize not only places but the names of characters as well, which he drew from real life.
The themes that Wright unfolds, however, center on much more intimate places in the area, mainly roadside memorial crosses that mark the loss of loved ones and are so prevalent around in the region.
"I've always driven by them, and I've always wondered about them," Wright says. "You sort of look over at them and you just wonder."
In his novel Wright speaks of love and loss and the mystery of death.
"I think I have questions that everyone has," Wright says. Having experienced great loss in the past several years, he imagined a character like himself who seems to lose everyone in his life who matters to him.
Born along the side of U.S. 11 in Strasburg after a car accident that kills his mother, baby John is adopted by the valley. After moving from one foster home to another, he finds a place with Wayne Bevan and his other two adopted sons, who run the fictional The Apple Orchard on Middle Road.
Growing up in Strasburg, John first attends preschool in the basement of the Presbyterian Church in Woodstock and later makes his way from Sandy Hook Elementary to Strasburg High, all the while crushing on his first love, Emma Jane Elkington.
As he experiences the loss of more loved ones, John forms many questions about death. Were they scared? If they died alone, were they lonely? Who was there to meet them?
"We think of death as a really lonely thing. It's really not," Wright says.
He speaks of personal experience through his characters, having lost his father when he was 16.
"I just wondered what -- was he scared, you know, did he see someone on the other side?" Wright says.
"The whole idea that no one dies alone" was a theme he wanted to convey in the story.
Like some other novels -- Mitch Albom's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," the inspiration for the film "Field of Dreams," "The Cross Gardener" offers a supernatural element that leaves the reader wondering what mysteries might happen every day all around without their noticing.
"I like this kind of genre; I'm not afraid to say that I cry at good books," he says. "I think it's natural to have questions about death and the next life."
Though its theme is a deep one and ponders universal ideas, the story has many lighter moments that reflect joy and hope and passion, depicting everyday moments from children waiting at the bus stop to families gathering each year at the Shenandoah County Fair.
Based on a real orchard -- Glaize Orchards in Strasburg -- the apple orchard is a symbol of hope for the future, Wright says, and a light at the end of a tunnel.
In its pages, the book offers the real life story of the discovery of Ginger Gold apples, which somehow thrived after a hurricane decimated an apple orchard.
Apple farming, itself, is a tale of something special growing out of unlikely circumstances, Wright says. Unlike other crops, which need flat, reliable land to grow, apples thrive on hilly, inconsistent ground.
"It is such an imperfect kind of farming," Wright says. A metaphor for life, it's bumpy and takes a lot of work, but then, "you end up with apples."
"The Cross Gardener" is Wright's first book with The Berkeley Publishing Group, part of Penguin Books.
"I'm very happy to have landed with them," he says, adding that with the publisher he feels at home.
Wright's next book, "The Seventeen Second Miracle," takes place in Charlottesville and is due to be released in October.
"The Cross Gardener," by Jason F. Wright, will be available wherever books are sold beginning March 2. A book signing will take place at Ben Franklin in Woodstock from 5 to 7 p.m. March 26.