I love Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I love everything about it…
I love prickly Mary Lennox (the original Angry Young Girl), I love exploring the forgotten rooms of Misselthwaite Manor, I love the miniature elephants and the Yorkshire moors, Dickon and his animals, the robin and Ben Weatherstaff, Martha and the skipping rope, Martha’s mother, all the food, the box of gardening supplies, and I even love Colin. I reread it almost every year.
Read the last Bookshelves of Doom on Josh Berk’s Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator.
If anyone but Ellen Potter had written a contemporary retelling of The Secret Garden, it’s quite possible that I’d have dismissed it out of hand. Strike that. It’s not just a possibility. It’s what would have happened, period. But when I heard that Potter had written one? Well. That just made sense.
It made sense because as varied as Potter’s novels have all been—from the Olivia Kidney books to Pish Posh to Slob to The Kneebone Boy*—they all have a few things in common—they feel timeless and fresh. They all couple honesty and sensitivity with humor, warmth and adventure. They all have a sense of wonder, but they’re never saccharine or condescending. They all feel like modern classics.
It’s perfectly possible to read The Humming Room as a standalone. No knowledge of The Secret Garden is necessary. But for me, a good part of the joy in reading it was in seeing the parallels to and the divergences from the original: the large (the moors become the St. Lawrence River), the medium (Dickon’s crow Soot becomes Jack’s heron Sir) and the small (the green snake). Plot and setting was just a part of the fun. It was also in seeing Roo Fanshaw’s similarities to Mary Lennox and her differences. They’ve both grown up neglected and are angry, proud, somewhat disagreeable girls, but where Mary is imperious and spoiled, Roo is standoffish and stubborn.
Roo’s clothes are old and worn, yes—they’re the same clothes that prompted other kids to call her “trailer trash,” among other things—but she refuses to wear the new ones that have been provided to her. She steals mail. She hides from her tutor. She runs around and around the island, trying to get another glimpse of the Faigne, the wild boy that the locals swear can call down storms. She knows that there are mysteries surrounding her uncle’s house, and even the threat of foster care isn’t enough to dissuade her from trying to find the truth.
Some argue that Mary Lennox is marginalized in the second half of The Secret Garden. That her story becomes Colin’s story. Not so here. No matter how many people ultimately enter her circle, The Humming Room is always about Roo.
I burst into tears when I’d finished reading. Not because it was sad, but because it was over. Like Burnett’s Misselthwaite Manor, Potter’s Cough Rock Island was a place that I didn’t want to leave.
*No, I haven’t read the whole thing, because I’m saving it for a Literary Emergency. But what I’ve read of it reminds me a whole lot of E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure-Seekers. And that makes me squee.
Let's be honest. If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is most likely being tragically unproductive due to the shiny lure of Pinterest.