Ebookwormy's Reviews > The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
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Mar 26, 14

bookshelves: carp-500, fiction, history-twentieth-century, world-europe
Recommended to Ebookwormy by: BBC Top 100 List
Read on August 17, 2010

This book is often referenced as an elementary read aloud. So, I started reading it to my child (for kindergarten), but had to stop after the first couple of paragraphs. The beginning is rather dark in emphasizing that the main character, Mary is a horrid child, who is irritable, ugly, sickly, disagreeable, selfish, condescending, neglected and shortly into the narrative, orphaned, when her entire household perishes or flees while she is incapacitated. Sounded like the stuff of nightmares! I think as we are currently praying about international adoption, I was especially trouble by how such a story would be perceived by an adopted child. I decided to read something else.

Then I picked it up and read it myself.

1) Anglophiles rejoice! This is an English book, and one can see why England, and her younger sister, America, embraced it as a classic. Hallmarks of the English culture are a love for fresh air, 'natural' gardens, and children of good disposition. A little bit of India mystique, a change of air for health, and gothic setting are also treasured. The only thing missing was a daily constitutional, but I suppose that was covered in Mary and Colin's walk to the garden and Dicken's tramp across the moor.

2) The characters of this work are memorable, and are the cornerstone of this work's success. Dicken's animal charming. Mary's transformation to confrontation of Colin, and Colin's imperialism are indelible. Even Susan Sowerby's ideal mothering, combined with courageous confrontation of "higher folks" stands out.

3) I was troubled by the references to Magic, yes Magic with a capital M. In fact, there is one entire chapter on the subject that I might consider skipping. What the children eventually arrive at is a very post modern conception of humanistic positive thinking. (I think Oprah would want an interview after selecting it for her book club.) While they do eventually sing the Doxology to praise God for their transformation, God is minimized as some sort of force for good, almost as though his attributes (good, love, peace, joy, etc) are greater than His being. Also while the children do reform (except Dickon who is wonderful all through) there is no concept of either the necessity or glory of God's redemption.

4) The personification of the garden is engaging, and I can see how children would be enraptured by it. However, while I appreciate the natural world, the rhapsodizing became a little tedious for someone who is allergic to grass, trees, pollen, etc. and hasn't found them to be as revitalizing as perhaps the average reader, or more perhaps more to the original audience, the average Englishman, is likely to.

5) Burnett struggles with concepts that violate her idealized theme. For example, Colin tells Ben that if he will just believe in the Magic and think positively his rheumatism will disappear - not likely for a person of age whose suffering is very different from Colin's. Ben and Colin also decide that a wife's constant harping on her husband as a drunk lead him to beat her and that maybe a more positive outlook on her behalf will change his ways. I found these references disturbing and thought a good editor should have eliminated them. They contribute nothing to either the story or the characters, and as we are dealing with an idealized, almost fantastical world, there is no need to encumber it with logic, much less bad logic.

6) While India settles into a nice minor tone in the later part of the book, early references to it are troubling, though probably not all that off from the time period. The English attitude of imperialism and racial superiority toward the Indian people is dissonant to a modern reader, particularly when considering the text for children. I thought the persistent reference to Indians as "blacks" (while it is mentioned in passing that this term is incorrect) would be especially confusing for little ones in the modern American context.

7) Part of the whimsy of this book is it's childlike reference point. We experience the transformation of Mary's thoughts and actions along with her. But, the weakness of this approach is that children reign supreme here. Mr. Craven is a troubled and broken man. Mrs. Medlock is perhaps kindhearted, but generally clueless as to how to manage the children under her care. Ben Weatherspoon does not particularly like anyone, much less meddlesome children, though he does become a subordinate, ordered around in their play. Dr. Craven's judgment is impaired by the combination of his poverty and rank as next inheritor after his patient, Colin, who for years has seemed on the verge of death. The only adult that emerges to give guidance and counsel is Susan Sowerby, an excellent, idealized, though impoverish woman who manages to feed two extra children of abundant appetite in addition to her own (12 children) in order to aide their deception of the adults responsible for their care (though they do eventually send her money for her graciousness). With the exception of Susan, the adults have no idea how to help the children and often work against their best interest.

In conclusion, I feel divided about this book. Would minor editing by the mother/reader make it acceptable for children? Do it's strong English themes mitigate it's convoluted presentation of God, adults, and Indians? Does it's whimsical, idealistic characterization of children maturing by engaging with the natural world outweigh it's early maudlin themes? I shall keep it on my shelf and consider it for later elementary reading. In the end, I think it depends on the child. Some children will be able to benefit from this classic work, others will be at worst frightened and at best bored by it. So which is my child?

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Catherine (new)

Catherine I was a very sensitive child with a very careful and sensitive mother, but this book is a WELL loved classic from my childhood. I clearly recall reading it aloud with my mother for the first time when I was about six, and then reading it to myself again and again. I'm wondering what I'd think from adult eyes? I remember that the "Magic" was great fantasy and the true healing power of imagination and friendship and breathing fresh air, literally and figuratively. I may have to read it and give an updated review but, from this Very Sensitive Child, I loved it.


message 2: by Ebookwormy (last edited Mar 26, 2014 12:56PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ebookwormy thanks, Catherine, good to know, as I was a Very Sensitive Child, but never read this book as a child. As we are thinking of adoption i was also wondering how adopted children would interpret the parent's neglect and, in particular, Mary's transformation. This was another reason i'm hesitant about it. I think there may be other titles out there that are safer for us, particularly if we do adopt.


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