When we meet to discuss our monthly reading, we gather around four tables pushed together as one, in a small, plain room with vinyl flooring. Plastic blinds cloak a window that looks out into a covered and enclosed dirt and rock garden. We start with twelve chairs but as more people arrive, we crowd together at corners and in-between spaces. We have had as many as 24, and as few as five, but generally we fill the table and then some, especially for classic reads like The Secret Garden. We nibble on trail mix, or cookies, or fruit, and if we are lucky, the book inspires me to find something for us to try, bringing our connection to the stories, and each other, to another level.
On Tuesday, ten of us ventured out on a drizzly day that saw the first rain in nearly four months fill gutters and flood streets—a slow, drenching rain that brought a chill to the Las Vegas Valley that is sorely needed. Perhaps serendipitous. Like the moors in Yorkshire, our desert is often considered harsh and bleak, but it is teaming with beauty and life if we take the time to look for it and care for it. In the story, nourishing rains heralded the start of Spring. January is, of course, early, even for the desert, but the natural ‘magic’ in the story is contagious!
According to publisher W.W.Norton & Company, “Frances Hodgson Burnett was the highest paid and most widely read woman writer of her time, publishing more than fifty novels and thirteen plays.”1 Yet, one-hundred years later, she is best known for a children’s novel that was first serialized in a “magazine for adults.”2 One of us commented that children’s books are read differently by people of different ages. Adults choose and publish the books that become children’s classics. We discussed what makes a novel for children versus teens versus adults.
Our collective joy in reading this novel was in both the message and the vehicle. We enjoyed the descriptions of an earlier age and greener landscape, noting that the need to allow children to be children is even more pertinent today. We discussed how important it is for parents to, well, parent! The novel was easy to read. One of us heard of the meeting the day before and read it in one night. We are so bombarded by ugliness in our news, gruesome murder in our adult mystery novels, and sex in our romance, that it was just pleasant. Although we can enjoy complex language and the challenge of learning sophisticated words, we appreciated the simplicity of the vocabulary in the novel.
Our first responder commented on how much he enjoyed the Yorkshire language, which was a truly remarkable part of the story. Regional dialects are often considered uneducated, acknowledged in the story when Mrs. Medlock says of Dickon’s mother, “Sometimes I’ve said to her, ‘Eh! Susan, if you was a different woman an’ didn’t talk such broad Yorkshire I’ve seen the times when I should have said you were clever.’”3 Yet the author has Mary Lennox choose to learn Yorkshire in the same way she might learn French. “It’s like a native dialect in India. Very clever people try to learn them.”4 And Colin, as Lord of the manner, must learn to speak his native language. And those of us who listened to the audiobook recommended it.
I also recommended reading the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was published in 1892.5 Ultimately, Frances Hodgson Burnett was an astounding feminist, supporting herself and her family, divorcing two husbands, surviving bouts of depression and fatigue, as well as the loss of both of her sons. Although we only briefly discussed the Christian Science elements of Burnett’s novel, The Yellow Wallpaper addresses the more adult side and dangers of “the rest cure.”6
We discussed books and movies that reminded us of this one, the importance of positive thinking, the ‘magic’ of science; we discussed our frustrations with social media, common core math, and personal experiences. We thought Mary’s finding of the key was contrived and more for children. We dismissed the magic. We are ultimately quite jaded! I challenge us to revert more often to our inner child. Before the crushing heat is upon us, get outdoors and see the beauty in our secret garden, filled with creosote, sage, mesquite, willows, hummingbirds, wildflowers, rabbits, and more.
- Other works discussed:
- Being There (1979 Film) with Peter Sellers (Jerzy Kosinski novel author)
- Heidi (1880) by Johanna Spyri
- LaRose (2016) Louise Erdrich
- Never-ending Stories (Fractured Fairy Tale Series)
- Pippi Longstocking (1945) by Astrid Lindgren
- Pollyanna (1913) Eleanor H. Porter
- Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw
- Rosemary & Thyme (2003-2008) British Television Series (AKA: Murder Most Floral)
- The Secret (2006) by Rhonda Byrne
- The Story of Doctor Doolittle (1920) by Hugh Lofting
- Time Travel Adventures with exceptional Americans (2013 -2017) by Rush Limbaugh
- The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
1 W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (http://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=11896)
2 According to The Public Domain Review: “’With regard to The Secret Garden,’ Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote to her English publisher in October 1910, ‘do you realize that it is not a novel, but a childs [sic] story though it is gravely beginning life as an important illustrated serial in a magazine for adults. . . . It is an innocent thriller of a story to which grown ups listen spell bound to my keen delight.’” (https://publicdomainreview.org/2011/03/08/100-years-of-the-secret-garden/)
3 p. 179 The Secret Garden, Longmeadow Press edition, New York, 1987
4 p. 177 The Secret Garden, Longmeadow Press edition, New York, 1987
6 “Looking back: Rewriting the rest cure in The Secret Garden” by Anne Stiles in The Psychologist, a journal of the British Psychological Society (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-3/looking-back-rewriting-rest-cure-secret-garden)