The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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I can’t believe it took me until late into my teens to read this wonderful classic. Mary Lennox, a sour-faced orphan who has been allowed to do anything she likes for her entire life, but has never been loved, arrives at a gloomy British estate to live with distant family. Raised in India, Mary is unused to the cold English weather and the British sensibilities, and finds her life taking a turn for the better. She quickly befriends a Yorkshire lad named Dickon who has a special way with the animals, and solves the mystery of a wailing boy whose cries she can hear from her room at night. And best of all, Mary discovers a seemingly enchanted garden that has been blocked off for years after an unthinkable tragedy.

“The Secret Garden” was published in 1911, and remains a timeless classic more than a century later. This success is no doubt based in it’s inspirational optimism and literary magic, all while being basically grounded in reality. Mary starts out as a brat but is never really a hateable character. She has never known caring or compassion, and without parental devotion, getting what you want on any given day means nothing. Dicken is delightful throughout, and there is really not much development on his part during the book.

‘Invalid’/hypochondriac Colin, Mary’s counterpart in bitterness and lonely angst, is not loved by his brooding, absent father, and he has been told he will be crippled and deformed if he does live to grow up. Colin is a tyrant who kicks and screams and makes all the servants at the manor’s lives a living hell. Mary’s combination of friendship and tough love redeems Colin, and they soon experience psychological transformations at the beckoning of the garden and themselves.

The writing in “The Secret Garden” is beautiful, and makes an ideal read-aloud. It might be a little descriptive for modern kids with short attention spans, and that’s a shame, because it really is a terrific book. Boys who aren’t too self-conscious about reading a ‘girls book’ will find a lot to enjoy here too. The portrayal of two kids pulling themselves out of despair and finding a new future together rings true.

Everyone who cares to read a brilliant piece of fiction should read this book. I am eager to read “The Little Princess” again (the first time I read it I was nine) when I get the chance. “The Secret Garden” belongs in a similar category to the “Harry Potter” books as perennial classics that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike for years to come.

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