Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Secret Garden

Book Review

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  This is a classic children's book.  It was originally written in 1911 and the prose is appropriate to that time frame.  This is one of those classic children's books that may have been intended for children, but probably wasn't often read by them until they were quite a bit older and their reading skills more advanced.  It is the kind of story that I can imagine being read to children right before bedtime.

The plot is somewhat predictable from the title alone.  A garden is hinted at but hidden, found and kept secret, and then announced and accepted.  There are no plot twists or turns, as one might expect from a child's book of this era.  The pace is right on target and moves along as one might expect.

The characters are few and didn't seem especially deep.  Maybe this is the symptom of being a children's book.  Maybe not.  Our protagonist is initially unforgivable and we are unsympathetic towards her, but she has had her share of upheavals.  It takes an equally unsympathetic antagonist to shake her to her core and bring awareness.  This is done in an appropriately simple manner.  We appreciate the changes brought over on our protagonist.  We expect these changes.  There is nothing unexpected here.

The prose is typical of the time, along with the prevalent prejudices and customs.  The local dialect is difficult to read silently and I doubt many American children would be able to decipher it.  It is possible that British children might have an easier time of it, if they know what local Yorkshire dialect sounds like.  Luckily for us, sometimes the author has made the effort of reiterating or translating or having our characters repeat what is said.  Well, at least the most pertinent parts.  The written dialect was heavily laden with apostrophes and my reading was greatly slowed through these parts.  As painful at it was, it did lend the appropriate flavor to the specific characters using it.  It was also used as a means for our protagonist to grow and accept her new situation.

Most of the prose is appropriate for an advanced child to read, but in the latter half of the book in several places, it seems as if the author has forgotten for whom it is written.  The word "hysterics" is used repeatedly and finally explained in an appropriately simplified manner.  But at one point, the author uses the word "atrophied" and then defines the word in a parenthetical expression.  This speaking directly to the reader jolts us out of our place in the story and is distracting.  In another place the author uses the word "hypochondriac", but does not define it or explain it.  I found this as an unfortunate oversight.  How many ten-year-olds know what a hypochondriac is?

There is a lot of use of the word "magic".  With today's kids, this would require some explanation.  The usage here is not the same as it is used in the Harry Potter series or any of the other common fantasy works.  Here the word is simply meant to represent the beauty of nature doing its work in the world of living things.  Mother Nature.  It could be extended to imply a religious or spiritual or mystic origin, but I suspect the author specifically chose to avoid stating any of these explicitly.  Other references to religion are given, specifically the ceremony and the sung hymn, but these seem to stem naturally from the children's experience and less from a direct persuasion of the author's.  I believe the word "magic" was specifically chosen to avoid a specific connotation and to let the reader infer its meaning however they wish.

This is a well-written book and is appropriate as a story for children.  I don't know if I could interest my modern children to read it now, but I could imagine having read it to them a few years back, when I was still reading bedtime stories to them.  If I had done so, I would have had to do some explaining of the prejudices and language used, as well as the British rule of India.  At an age of five or six years old, they might have been patient to listen to me read the story, but they probably wouldn't have known about British-controlled India.

Considering everything, this was a good read.  It is evident of its time, but still has the qualities of a well-crafted and well-written book.   With other exposure to children's classics, and if you can get it to today's kids young enough, even today's children are likely to enjoy it.

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