This is an extraordinary look into the lives of the Whittaker family, largely through the experiences of Alma Whittaker, a large, ungainly, homely child, born in America, in 1800. Hers was the first successful birth to Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, after many losses, and she was the apple of her father’s eye. Her mother was Dutch, well-mannered, reserved and cold in demeanor; her father was English, often crude, always outspoken and even brusque in manner. Henry was one of six children. He, the youngest, was a scamp, mischievous and sometimes reckless. Ashamed of his father, the orchard-man for King George (nicknamed Apple Magus by the king), he lived with his family adjacent to the pig sty, on the grounds of the Kew Palace. Noting how the royals lived, he was determined to achieve a life of luxury for himself, and he set about to accomplish this by any means necessary, stealing plants and cuttings from the Kew botanist, Joseph Banks, and developing a secret, side business of his own. His own father turns him in knowing that the penalty for his crime of theft could have been hanging. Instead, though, Joseph Banks sends Henry on an expedition to learn about plants and tells him to bring the information back to him. He sets sail with Captain Cook and begins an arduous journey into his future and fortune.
Life made Henry hard. He was a man bereft of ethics, driven only by the desire to overcome the poverty of his background. As he traveled, he learned about new and exceptional plants with special qualities. He became even more unscrupulous acquiring great wealth in the process. He cultivated medicinal plants, with curative powers, that he obtained through illicit means. Eventually, he built an estate in Philadelphia, called White Acre, a play on his name, Whittaker. Alma, brought up in this luxurious environment, followed in his footsteps becoming an expert botanist and an authority on plants. She eventually even published books in her field. She seemed like the moss she studied, sturdy, strong and self-sufficient. Through her in-depth study of moss, she developed a theory strikingly similar to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”, believing that plants could adapt and alter their structure to their surroundings, but she never published her findings. She couldn’t seem to satisfactorily apply her theories to humans and so she felt obliged to continue her scientific study.
When Alma was nine years old, her mother adopted the child of an employee on the estate. He had murdered his wife and then taken his own life. Beatrix did not want their child, Prudence, a beautiful young girl, to be left to the mercy of the mob, the men who offered to care for her for obvious reasons. She took her in and she became the sister of Alma. Alma was referred to as the plum by her father, while Prudence was called Exquisite. The “sisters” were never really close. Prudence was very quiet, polite and considerate, easily liked by everyone. Alma was very outspoken and self-absorbed, able to carry on conversations with anyone, but not to endear herself to them. Aside from their friend Retta Snow, a strange and beguiling young girl, they had no other friends. The one thing they had in common was a man, George Hawkes, whom each of them loved. He, however, loved only one of them. Each of them experienced love in different ways, each of them suffered silently; each entered into an unfortunate marriage.
Life took each of these characters in different directions. The interesting details and descriptions of their travels were enlightening. Often there was a comic element to the book where one would least expect to find it. More often, though, I found the book to be devastatingly sad and disappointing. None of the characters seemed to have fulfilled their dreams except for a semi-mad man of the cloth, the Reverend Welles, and he brought humor to what I found to be an otherwise depressing narrative.
The book is written in beautiful prose with each word carefully chosen for its eloquence. The reader of the audio captured the emotional qualities of all of the characters perfectly, making them come alive on the page. For me, the five parts of the book went off on too many tangents, making it hard to decide what ultimate purpose the author had in mind for it. What was the major theme of the story? There seemed to be so many that shared the stage equally. Unfortunate choices and sacrifices, misunderstandings, poor communication, sexual confusion, failed relationships, abolitionists and slavery, sibling rivalry, mistrust and suspicion, insecurity and foolhardiness, honor and ethics, were among the many ideas expressed. There was an undercurrent of “disapproved of” sex, and what seemed to be unnecessary vulgar, sexual references which diminished the beauty of the writing style and text, detracted from the enlightening references to botany and sometimes devalued the cultures of other places. Although very interesting, it was also sometimes too detailed.
The title, The Signature of All Things, refers to the fact that plants are often in the shape of the part of the body they can treat. This is supposedly G-d’s way of helping man identify the correct one to select.