Waking Up the Garden (Ushering in Spring with a Classic)
March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments
The setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.
Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring.
I am struck each year by what a gift these early days of spring are to our soul. As a parent, I am equally struck by what a gift they are to our sanity. Suddenly, my children cannot get enough of playing outside. They walk in circles around the backyard, digging with sticks and poking at trees and marveling at everything and nothing. There are no mosquitoes! There is no fighting! I can enjoy their company through the open windows in our kitchen, where I can cook to the muted sounds of gleeful exclamations. And when at last I tuck them into bed, they smell of leaves and dirt and fresh air.
If it’s even possible, this spring—and I am convinced this is in no small part thanks to our evenings spent reading The Secret Garden—my kids are even more excited to get outside. “Mommy, I can actually smell the earth waking up,” my eight year old announced as we got into the car one crisp morning before school, an almost direct quote from the book. “Come on!” I heard him calling to his sister last weekend. “Help me stir up the dirt so the plants can get some air.” His eagerness for gardening is perhaps moving faster than the season itself: he and his sister sprinkled a packet of zinnia seeds into the soil, despite my suggestion that they wait a month (or two? or three?). “That’s OK, we’ll just plant more if these don’t take!” If only I could bottle this enthusiasm.
Actually, bottle this enthusiasm for the outdoors is exactly what Frances Hodgson Burnett has done with her nineteenth-century classic. Its very pages are brimming with the excitement of a girl who, not only witnesses for the first time the beautiful and mysterious changeability of the outside world, but discovers her own power to nurture and transform it. Add to that Ina Moore’s exquisite line drawings and watercolors, and it’s no wonder we as readers are vicariously swept up.
The transformation of the earth from the barrenness of winter to the awakening of spring to the bounty of summer is chronicled with spellbound appreciation through the eyes of the young orphan named Mary Lennox. It’s an appreciation made all the more striking to us because of the person Mary is—or, rather, the person she is not. Mary might be the greatest anti-heroine of children’s literature. Compared to the oppressed but sweet-natured heroines that normally populate children’s classics, Mary is a “cross,” “contrary,” and at times insufferable pain in the you know what. It feels almost uncomfortable to read aloud some of the insults she dishes out.
And yet, how much blame can we cast upon someone who has never been shown love or affection, neither from her parents nor from a friend her age? After the death of her parents from cholera in India, Mary comes to live in her uncle’s secluded mansion in the heart of the moorland in Yorkshire, England. Mary’s uncle is a reclusive man haunted by the untimely death of his young wife, and his estate is a place steeped in loneliness and secrets.
My children were fascinated (as I’ve always been) by the Victorian setting and Gothic echoes in the story. A labyrinth of corridors of locked doors? The expectation for aristocratic children to be seen and not heard? The fear and disdain surrounding illness and disability? Or how about the almost insistent use of the word “queer” to describe any deviancy from “normal”? All of this has made for interesting discussions these past weeks.
Mary—having spent her earliest years in colonial India—is a kind of outsider to this Victorian society, and it is precisely her ignorance about the way things are done, coupled with a stubbornness from always having gotten her way, that initially drives her rebellion. She not only makes up her mind to find a way into the “secret garden,” a walled garden where nobody has been allowed in ten years, but she follows a boy’s cries down the corridors of the house until she discovers her infirm and imprisoned cousin.
Mary’s ability to marvel at the nature around her ultimately rehabilitates her—first physically and then emotionally. Compared to her indoor life in India, the English countryside is wild and new and endlessly fascinating. Partly out of the neglect of her uncle and partly from sheer boredom, Mary spends her early days largely alone, wandering the extensive grounds at the edge of the moor. She discovers the simple pleasure of a “skipping rope.” She falls in love with a robin, the first living being to appear to enjoy her company. Mary’s sallow coloring and scowling expression begin to fade, and she works up an appetite for the first time in her life. When she digs up the key to the mysterious garden, whose door lies secreted behind a dense layer of ivy, she “felt as if she had found a world all of her own.”
Wonder. Joy. Independence. These are the gifts of the garden, made all the richer when Dickon enters the scene: the free-spirited, animal-charming, “common” boy, who lives with his eleven brothers and sisters in a tiny cottage on the moor, and whom Mary invites to be her accomplice in returning the neglected garden to its original splendor. The two spend their days weeding and pruning—literally waking up the garden—while Dickon teaches Mary about the busy work of the animals around them (they must whisper so as not to disturb the robin making his nest).
In waking up the garden, Mary begins to wake up her heart. Her once self-centered and obstinate personality softens to encompass compassion, courage, and generosity. Her friendship with Dickon teaches her the rewards of human connection, but Mary’s transformation becomes even more pronounced through her relationship with Colin, her self-loafing and fearful cousin, who suffers delusions of illness and disability as he lies in bed contemplating his mortality. In Colin’s rude, gruff behavior, Mary recognizes her own shortcomings, and she is determined that Colin, like her, should experience the renewal power of fresh air and beauty. In one of the most memorable endings in children’s literature, we as readers are witness to this incredible payoff.
Burnett’s prose is at its best when describing the natural world through Mary’s eyes. It is also prose that lends itself to reading aloud. While I can remember plodding through my mother’s childhood copy of the book when I was eight, I also remember being more enamored with the accomplishment of completing 375 pages of dense type than with the story itself. It occurs to me now that—between the long, descriptive sentences and the “broad Yorkshire” dialect spoken by many of the characters—I probably grasped very little of what I read. And yet, when the story is read aloud, its words leap off the page. It sings; it hums; it comes alive like the very earth it describes. I’ll leave you with this passage from midway through the story:
On that first morning when the sky was blue again, Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself, and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the window and held it in the sun.
“It’s warm—warm!” she said. “It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.”
When we become attuned to the “struggle” of the earth—to the hard work happening all around us—we are that much more likely to step outside our own heads, to fill up our souls with beauty, and to sing out its praises for our neighbors to hear. It is then that the Magic happens.
Happy spring, everyone!
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