I was listening to Unbroken : a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption in my car for my book club, and like many people I was shocked and horrified on many occasions. I knew I needed to listen to The Secret Garden next to regain my equilibrium, even though it is a book that I have read at least six times. I listened to the audiobook on CD. The reader, Flo Gibson, wasn’t who I would have picked as she has an American accent and a kind of scratchy voice but I soon settled into the old story like sliding down into a warm bubble bath. I had previously come to the conclusion that many of the children’s books that I enjoy reading over and over are “cozy,” so I was surprised to discover when I started working in this library that “cozy mystery” is an official designation. It makes sense, as sometimes we all need a cozy and comforting read.
In The Secret Garden Mary Lennox is a neglected and spoiled child who has spent her entire ten years being over-indulged by Indian servants. After her parents die in an epidemic she is sent to another dysfunctional household, the home of her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors. There she meets the sturdy Martha and Dickon, representatives of a family of fourteen. She makes friends with an elderly and crabby gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, through her interest in a friendly robin. There are also also mysterious noises and howlings down the corridors of the huge house. And of course, she discovers a hidden and secret garden.
In this story, the Yorkshire Moors themselves, as well as the Secret Garden, are characters just as much as the people. As the season changes from winter to spring and on into summer, Mary changes, the garden and the Moors change, and so too does everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.
This book was first published in 1911 and what I find intriguing 100 years later is the psychology of Mary and other characters. Despite Dickon and Martha’s material poverty they are well loved and looked after and it shows in their steady, kind ways. Mary, on the other hand, starts the book emotionally impoverished but gains a purpose and learns to love and live under the influence of attention. The book is also full of gentle humor, especially in the character of Ben Weatherstaff.
One aspect of The Secret Garden that I missed as a child and can see as an adult is the Christian symbolism, for example, when they recite the Doxology while sitting in a circle with a fox and a lamb. Other aspects are less overtly Christian as when the children call the life force that helps them to heal “Magic.” The Magic makes the Moors and garden change for spring, and when the children and other characters allow it, the Magic also changes them. Towards the end one previously stunted, but blossoming character announces, ”Being alive is the Magic!”
When I was talking about cozy children’s books, a colleague at the library recommended an out-of-print book, The Golden Name Day by Jennie D. Lindquist. It captures the joy of being a child, that many adults are yearning to regain. “Oh, anything can happen in this world, just anything. That’s why life is so exciting,” says Nancy towards the end of that book. Other out-of-print (and sometimes obscure) books in this category that I love include: World’s End series by Monica Dickens, Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, The Blow and Grow Year by Margaret Potter and Longtime Passing by Hesba Brinsmead.
For those who have read The Secret Garden before, perhaps years ago as a child, I highly recommend a second look through the eyes of an adult. For those who have never tried it, it is a deeply hopeful story about redemption through the natural world and redemption through love.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden in book form.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden on audiobook CD.