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  • Sara St. Antoine

Dispatch #3: A Place of One’s Own

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Harper Classics, 2010)

Most people I know recall one or two books from childhood that they not only read, but re-read again and again, until the story became a place inside themselves that they could visit whenever the need arose. For me, that book was The Secret Garden. I must have read it dozens of times between the ages of 8 and 12. When I first pulled out my old copy nearly 40 years later, the illustrations by Tasha Tudor triggered a Proustian rush of memories. I could feel how comforted I’d been when I settled in this garden with Mary, Colin, Dickon, and their animal companions--an English robin, a fox, and a crow. More surprising to me, though, was how much of my career seemed inspired by the story's underlying ideals.

From a dramatic point of view, the story is unabashedly reassuring. Things start out grim, but after the first chapter they are almost always getting better. Mary is a quarrelsome little orphan, but one foray outside and there’s a touch of pink to her wan cheeks. She gets pinker and rounder and happier every day, essentially without a single setback! In fact, being outside makes everyone in the story healthier and happier, not just Mary. What’s more, the animals in the story are characters unto themselves; wild but individualistic, communicative, gentle, loyal. They present a fantasy of human-animal connection that could easily be dismissed as simplistic and idealized outside the context of children’s fiction.

I’m aware now that this book has its shortcomings and I’m very well aware that not everyone is going to relate to a story about a British child in such rarefied surroundings. But I still adore what it offered: an inviting world of possibility in a pastel-hued pastoral setting. And I recommend The Secret Garden without apology as an extraordinary story (almost a manifesto) on the power of connecting to nature. At heart I do think there are animal whisperers out there like Colin who can find kinship with wild species. I still think any part of the world looks better with a well-tended garden plot. And I do think kids are nourished by time spent playing in the outdoors and attending to growing things. Of course it’s not as simple (or British) as this story would tell it. But for the child reader, I think there’s something magical about reading a narrative so replete with the power and beauty of regeneration, especially at the hands of a plucky trio of young people and the winsome creatures at their side.

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