Children's Fiction: "Return to the Secret Garden" by Holly Webb
It's 1939 and a group of children have been evacuated to Misselthwaite Hall. Emmie is far from happy to have been separated from her cat and sent to a huge old mansion. But soon she starts discovering the secrets of the house - a boy crying at night, a diary written by a girl named Mary and a garden. A very secret garden...
This is as magical as the original story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Webb has placed her sequel in 1939 which is really effective as it presents a believable way to bring children back to Misselthwaite Hall with the same sense of abandonment, a search for family and a need to belong that Mary had in "The Secret Garden". It is also effective as the whole concept of being taken away from the city and deposited in the middle of the countryside in a big rambling old house is very appealing to children and perhaps echoes the same idea used by Rowling and Blyton with boarding schools.
Orphaned Emmie, the main protagonist, has the same traits as Hodgson Burnett's Mary, making her a little awkward and hard to like or warm to because of her stubborn attitude and slight unkindness, but again, in keeping with the original characterisation, this is deliberate and initially children will still respond to Emmie as they will relate to the way she is judged and poorly treated by her teachers. Emmie's character softens very quickly as the novel continues and there is a lot of empathy and sympathy created for her when her more lonely and vulnerable side is revealed once the children arrive at the Hall and she explores the grounds.
Emmie is desperate to find something for herself - a place for herself, a place to belong and in which to be happy. She stumbles across an old diary written by Mary and the similarities between them are subtly revealed. On her discovery of the Robin, who seems to want to communicate so much more to Mary than just his pretty song, Mary writes sadly "I don't think I ever had a friend and I should like one." Emmie's relationship with her kitten Lucy exactly mirrors this. Webb has successfully modernised Mary's voice so her diaries are very accessible and read as fluently as a contemporary character.
Emmie is able to find the hidden key and then discovers the secret garden. She is so disappointed to find that it is no longer secret but decides that "It wasn't a secret garden anymore - but it could still be her garden full of secrets." Once again, the garden will show its healing power and work its magic!
I thought the way Webb weaves her story in and amongst Hodgson Burnett's story was really clever and interesting. She captures the same tension and suspense of the howling wind, the crying at night, the discovery of a secret place and the connections it has with the family's past. The references and cross overs were sensitive and totally in keeping with the original. Emmie's character is well constructed; her emotions are well represented and we follow her journey from being lonely, frustrated and angry to healing others around her and finally becoming part of something very special. Webb's writing shows respect and real affection for "The Secret Garden" and a very deep understanding of its themes and ideas. It is an authentic sequel and one of which France Hodgson Burnett would definitely approve! Webb shows that the themes in Hodgson Burnett's novel are still very relevant to a modern audience and still as heartwarming and affirming. I really enjoyed it and can't wait to share it with my daughter. For me, it is as captivating, memorable and as special as "The Secret Garden".
Webb also recommends "The Painted Garden" by Noel Streatfeild.
Life is tough for the Winter family in London, with little money and Dad out of work. Luckily Aunt Cora comes to the rescue with an invitation to live in California. From that moment on, talented Rachel and Tim dream of stardom in America. The family couldn't be more surprised when a movie producer picks plain peevish Jane for the lead part of Mary in The Secret Garden. No one's ever noticed Jane before. Could this be the chance of a lifetime?