The story of The Secret Garden

When I was 8 (? I’m not sure, but 8 seems about right) I got the chicken pox. I got it at a Girl Scout campout when a younger brother of one of the girls who was also there (whole families came to the campout) unwittingly gave it to everyone in the troop. Unfortunately, the week that my pox manifested was the week that my family was supposed to go to Disneyland for the first time ever; a trip that had to be postponed.

The chicken pox were itchy, and we weren’t at Disneyland and it was my fault, and I was not a happy camper. One of the days, as I sat in a bathtub full of oatmeal bath, my mom brought me a book to read. I was never one to turn down a book, and I opened it and started to read about Mary Lennox and her hot horrid life in India, and her parents’ death, and her sickly sallow yellow skin. The water I was sitting in was sickly sallow yellow, and I didn’t like Mary, and I didn’t like the book. I believe I may have actually thrown it. But I know I didn’t keep reading it.

The next year, in fourth grade, our teacher was out for the day, and the sub put on a movie version of The Secret Garden. I was utterly entranced. My mom had been right, it was a story tailor made for me, I just couldn’t get past the beginning to get to the magic. I went right home and got out my copy of the book and started reading. I don’t know how many times I read it. I still have that copy of the book.

I knew that I wanted to read The Secret Garden with the girls, but I wanted to wait until just the right time. There’s magic in the secrets in the book, and you can only read it for the first time once. I didn’t want to read it with them when they were too little to really get it but old enough to remember the plot. I’ve almost started it with them a couple of times, but always held back.

Starting a couple of months ago, I mentioned the book, and Zoe instantly protested that she didn’t want to read it. She didn’t like it, and she didn’t want to read it. This made very little sense, as she knew nothing about the book, but she was pretty adamant. After a couple times of going back and forth about it I finally figured out that she thought that the story of The Secret Garden was the story of Labyrinth. Now, she doesn’t know the story of Labyrinth either, but I have a number of things with images from it, and I think I may have told her the barest of plot.  But even when we figured out that The Secret Garden and Labyrinth were not the same, she still didn’t want to read it. At all.

Skip to this week. There was a bit of grumpiness with quite a bit of focusing on the negative, and as I thought about what to do to help shift perspective, a line came to me. ” Where you tend a rose, a thistle canna’ grow”. And I realized that now was the time for The Secret Garden. It came to me almost like a prescription- an idea that makes me happy. I think more people could use prescriptions for books.

Anyway, we were in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth, which we’ve read countless times before, so I told the girls that we were taking a break and reading another book. But I wouldn’t tell them what it was, because if I did then Z would protest about it. So we just started reading. We started at 6pm, and the girls were not pleased.  Mary was mean and feisty in India, and “I don’t like this book, Momma!”. Mary’s parents die and she’s sent to Misslethwaithe Manor, “I don’t like this book, Momma!”. Martha speaks Yorkshire and neither Mary nor the girls can understand her- “I don’t like this book, Momma!” But I stuck with it, because I knew that if we could get a little further…

Mary goes out in the gardens and gets a skipping rope. Do you want another chapter? Yes, Momma. Mary hears about a garden that no one has been in for ten years. Do you want another chapter? Yes, Momma. Mary meets the robin. Do you want another chapter? Yes, Momma. Mary hears about Dickon, the boy who animals trust. We stopped reading at 8:30 with, “Maybe I like this book a little bit, Momma.”

The next night they wanted to know what the book was called, and I wouldn’t tell them. We read from 6pm, and when Mary found the key that had been buried for ten years, the girls jumped up and down with excitement. Tiny yelled, “She found the key, Momma! She found the key to the secret garden!!” Then she stopped. “Wait a minute, Momma. Is this The Secret Garden book?”  I laughed for quite a while. Z was a little miffed about being tricked, but admitted that she liked the book. Tiny told me that she has 4 favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth (of course, she said), Tuesdays at the Castle, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and The Secret Garden.

Tonight, Mary met Dickon.

I love Dickon. He is one of my favorite characters in all of literature, and has been ever since Mary first heard of him. Zoe’s eyes lit up in a similar way when Mary heard about him, and she had been hoping for the last several chapters that Mary would meet him.

But Mary doesn’t just meet Dickon. Mary, the little girl who has never cared about anything or anyone, never trusted anyone, but at the same time never been denied anything, now has a secret, a secret she cares about more than anything. A secret that, if it is discovered, could be taken away from her. She is passionate about it- the first thing she’s ever been passionate about in her life. And she meets Dickon and just like the animals he tames, she decides to trust him. Even though she is terrified and filled with emotions that she doesn’t understand, she tells him about the garden.

I’ll admit that I choked up while I read it. Mary is changing, and growing, and risking, and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing to bear witness to, and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to share with my daughters. Both of the girls were emotional as well, though I could tell that like Mary, they weren’t quite sure why or what was happening. So we stopped and talked about it a bit.  Z  had been quiet, and a bit sad seeming, so I asked her if she could tell me what she was feeling. She said that she just loved the book so much, but that it made her cry. I told her that the best books do that to us, that the characters are so real that they make us feel, and that experience is one of the most wonderful in the world. And I believe that with all my heart.

And then we kept reading as Mary and Dickon discover that much in the garden is alive, and they work, and it’s magic. And Mary’s uncle turns out to be nice, and he says she can have her bit of earth anywhere she wants it, and that’s magic too.

We stopped reading at bedtime, and both girls wanted to keep going. And before she went to bed, Tiny told me that she only has one favorite book now.


3 thoughts on “The story of The Secret Garden

  1. mindy on

    beautiful beautiful beautiful. What a wise reader you are. Thank you.

  2. Brandy on

    I echo Mindy! My dad always said The Secret Garden and Heidi were his favorite “girl books” because they teach great truths about how being in nature can heal us of our sadnesses and illnesses.

  3. Dottie on

    As you know I read this book recently and loved it too. After reading your blog I want to read it again. My secret garden was the woods at the spring near my grandpa’s house and this story brings me back to that little girl in the woods. Thank you Maryanne. You always add so much to my life with your love and wisdom.

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