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The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
"The Secret Garden" is the book that made me a reader. I cannot remember if I was seven or eight when my mom took me to the bookstore. She walked into the children's department and grabbed this thick paperback book. She bought it and they put it in a paper bag and taped the bag shut. When she handed the book to me, she told me that it was one of her favorite books from her own childhood.
I leafed through it and it was mostly words. It was the edition with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor, so there were some illustrations at the beginnings of the chapters, but other than that, just words. I seem to recall that I was kind of intimidated at first, but my mom encouraged me to give it a try. It didn't take me very long at all to get sucked into the story, and when I finished it, I told my mom that I wished it hadn't ended. My mom said that I could read it again. To hear my mom tell it, I lapsed into silence at that point and when she looked at me, I had my head back down in the book. She hadn't actually meant that I could read it again immediately, but that's the way I took it. I read and reread that book until it fell apart.
I have recommended the book to all and sundry in the intervening years and even bought a copy for my now-ex-husband when we'd been dating for a few months. He was reading it outdoors and got so absorbed in it that he ended up with a sunburn.
Mary Lennox is born to a British couple in India during the British Raj period. Mary was apparently an accident and her parents want nothing to do with her. They turn her over to an ayah, who defers to her in everything, lest her crying attract the attention and disapproval of her parents. Since no one really loves Mary, when people start to die from cholera, no one bothers to tell her what is going on or even to check on her. So it is that when someone comes to see if anyone is alive in the complex, they find Mary the lone survivor.
Mary does not have any living aunts, uncles, or grandparents by blood, so her closest relative, her father's sister's widowed husband, Archibald Craven, takes her in. Craven lives in a big house on a moor in Yorkshire. The house was built during the Tudor era and contains more than a hundred rooms, most of them empty. Once again, almost no one has any interest in her, except for a Yorkshire housemaid named Martha, who talks to her, for the very first time, like she is a human being. And so begins Mary's transformation from spoiled child to civilized young woman.
Mary explores the grounds, and is intrigued when Martha tells her that her uncle Archibald adored her aunt Lilias and that Archibald and Lilias had a garden that they cared for themselves. When Lilias died after an accident in the garden, Archibald locked the garden up and buried the key.
It doesn't take Mary long to find the shut-up garden and in due time, Mary makes friends with a robin who lives in the garden. The robin shows Mary where the key is, and Mary makes her first attempts at gardening.
She later meets Martha's younger brother Dickon, who teaches her more about gardening and becomes Mary's first human friend. The rest of the book involves Mary's maturation and her attempt to help a similarly privileged-yet-ignored child whom she meets in Yorkshire.
There are two schools of thought on what creates a "spoiled' child and it certainly seems to me that "The Secret Garden" shows both. The more common theory, from what I have seen, is that children are spoiled by being catered to and not "disciplined" (by which many mean "punished") but the other theory is that spoiled children are created by being ignored. In this theory, parents give their children things in lieu of time and attention. And Mary is certainly given everything she asks for, but, until her first conversation with Martha, no one has ever given her any meaningful attention.
There are, as with many books of the era, several racist themes in this book. Both Martha and Mary say racist things about Indians (the people from India, not Native Americans) and Mary even says in so many words that "natives aren't people" and despite the growth Mary shows in the book, this attitude is never addressed again. We never find out if Mary ever comes to see people of color as human or not. I suspect that, based on the time "The Secret Garden" was written, she may never have done so, but perhaps she eventually did. "The Secret Garden" was written on the cusp of the 20th Century after all, and it is likely that Mary lived to see both World Wars, which changed so much for so many people.
Over all, though, despite the rather predictable racism, this remains one of my favorite books ever.