Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Like most everyone else, my mother read The Secret Garden to me as a kid. I remember lying on my back on my bed at night staring up at the ceiling and out the open window to the fireflies outside as she read about Mary Lennox and Dickon and a sick little boy named Colin no one wanted to remember. Beyond that, however, my memories had faded quite a bit in the intervening years. I've seen a couple of film adaptations. In fact, the Hallmark one was a fixture in our home growing up and I still start humming Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor whenever I run across a Secret Garden reference or think of one of the characters. And I made the acquaintance of the musical in college and fell in love with that adaptation and the beautiful, beautiful score. However, that's sort of summed it up for me for a long time. I'd forgotten the particular words, you know? I'd forgotten the way Frances Hodgson Burnett employed them to create the magic and sense of wonderment unique to this classic story. But a few months ago, the light dawned on me that it might just be the perfect book to read to my two oldest children, that maybe it was the book we ought to be sharing just then. So I pulled out the gorgeous oversize copy my mom had given me for Christmas and opened it up to the first haunting illustration of Misselthwaite Manor.
Mary Lennox is being sent away. Not a new sensation for her, as she has consistently been sent away from every party, every room, every home she's ever know, this time does change things in that she is being sent away from the only land she's ever known. This time she is an orphan and going to live in a remote part of England with an uncle she did not know existed. Upon arriving at the lonely Misselthwaite Manor, young Mary sees she is to be by and large left alone, as her Uncle Archie rarely visits his home. Rumors of a hunched back and a tragic death haunt Mary's steps as she explores the grounds and gardens of her new home. And at night, she swears she can hear someone crying. Befriended by the young maid Martha, her younger brother Dickon, and a cheeky little robin, Mary grows to love her new home and finds the courage to push past the years of neglect and silence to find the secret behind the cries and the locked door. The reward, if she can hold onto it, promises to be far beyond the depth and breadth of her imagination.
First published in 1911, I was amazed at how well The Secret Garden translated to today's children and their own concerns and experiences of the world around them. That's not to say that I didn't cringe several times at some of the blithely expressed social mores of the time, particularly the attitude toward the Indian "natives" and the color of people's skin. The same thing happened when I read Peter Pan aloud to my son a year or so ago. But you know what, we can discuss these things with our children. We can explain and talk about history and the evolution of gender and civil liberties. We don't need to be afraid of those topics. And such was the case here. But beyond that, this beautiful story fell on us like gently-falling rain upon parched ground. We drank it up. I wasn't sure what my children's reactions would be, but they were immediately enchanted. As was I. Somehow, I forgot with what insight and effortless clarity Ms. Burnett saw children. These poor, fiercely unhappy children. Mary Lennox is the predecessor of so many outwardly disagreeable, inwardly desperate young female characters that came after her. The three of us loved her unreservedly from her first uttered syllables. She's dynamic and active and in control of herself when she has been so long surrounded by incapacitated or uninterested adults who nevertheless formed the rigid borders of her life. And the way that she and the garden saved each other continues to speak something to my soul. The exquisite depiction of the need these three children and the garden had for each other is masterfully done. I'm so happy my children understood it and loved it, too. We three walked around the house singing, "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary" for weeks afterward. It was heavenly.
Retro Friday Roundup
Carla @ Makeshift Bookmark reviews The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White
Boston Bibliophile - "She doesn't romanticize the children or childhood but presents the children with respect and realism."
Good Books and Good Wine - "It’s about the quiet sort of magic that happens when you let your barriers down and trust others."
One Librarian's Book Reviews - "I'd forgotten just how magical this book was."
That's What She Read - "It is one of those novels that loses nothing over time."
Things Mean a Lot - "I’ve been daydreaming about having my own garden ever since I finished this book."