The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

In 1857 Talmadge came into the valley with his mother and sister. He was nine and Elsbeth was eight. His father had died in a silver mine collapse and his mother wanted to get as far away from mining as she could. They walked forever and Talmadge thought maybe they too had died and this was what heaven was like. They settled in a valley of yellow grass and two sickly apple trees.  They tended the trees and planted vegetables.

In the spring of 1860 his mother died of respiratory disease.  Two years later when Talmadge was fifteen, he and his sister harvested two acres of apples and one of apricots.

In 1865 Elsbeth went into the woods to collect herbs. She didn’t return. Talmadge searched frantically as did the neighbors. He even offered a reward.  His Indian friend, Clee found her bonnet and picking basket, but his sister was ghosted away without a trace. For the rest of his life Talmadge would grieve the loss of Elsbeth.

“At times he could imagine her fate matter-of-factly, he could distance himself from it: he had had a sister who had disappeared into the woods, and no one knew what had become of her…. But other times even his flesh was sensitive to the air, and what could have befallen her – and what she had suffered – tortured him. The litany of possibilities always hung about him, and during periods of weakness he turned to it, scrolled through it; amended some possibilities, added others.”

That loss is what molded Talmadge, a solitary orchardist. The story begins when he is forty years old and has grown his orchard to twenty-five acres and his land to four hundred. Two teenage sisters appear and steal his apples as he dozes next to his market wagon. He lets them get away with the theft, noticing their grossly swollen bellies, filthy faces and tangled hair. They turn up in his orchard and like wild strays, stalk him, running when he approaches. He leaves plates of food on his porch. When he’s gone they devour it and raid his cabin for the rest of his food. The girls, Jane and Della, hang out in the orchard, always wary of Talmadge. He and his friend, herbalist Caroline Middey, assist the girls when they go into labor at the same time. Jane has a healthy girl; Della’s child is stillborn.

Gradually Talmadge learns the horrific background of Jane and Della. They have escaped from a brothel staffed with little girls. The owner is searching for them. He gets wind that Talmadge might have them and comes looking. Seeing him from the distance, the girls jump from a tree limb with nooses around their necks. Jane dies. Della must have hesitated for a moment because Talmadge is able to catch her and pay off the brothel owner.

Now Talmadge has a family: Della and Jane’s baby Angeline. With Caroline Middey’s sage advice and support he cares for the two. Angeline is a model child who grows close to Talmadge and Caroline. Della is another story. Her traumatic childhood is a monster that will never give her peace. She has trouble relating to Angeline. The five hundred plus page novel is the love story of Talmadge’s unwavering quest to help Della for the rest of his life.

This is a remarkable first novel. In an interview with the director of the Oregon Humanities Center, Coplin explains the genesis of the story, the literary influences on her work and her thought processes leading to the experimental techniques she employs. There are no quotation marks for the dialog. That takes a bit of getting used to but promotes an intimacy between the reader and the characters.  She was influenced by Virginia Wolfe and William Faulkner who excel in revealing the rich inner lives of their characters. In The Orchardist both the outer landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the inner landscape of the quiet western people are lovingly laid out for the reader to ponder.

Why is this very quiet, very intense book garden-friendly? An orchard is part of the natural world, that is, the natural world influenced by man. Throughout the book each character takes solace and learns from the natural world. The young girl, Angeline dreams of sharing her garden with Della.

“When she knew she was looking for a plant for her very own garden …her interest became singular and almost obsessive. What a delicious feeling to walk through the fair with her own bag upon her arm, driven by her own purpose. Here are my pumpkins, Angeline would have said to Della, if Della came through in the fall.”

Caroline Middey in her garden reflects on the nearness of death.

“But the knowledge seemed new – she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise.”

Talmadge, so intimate with the seasons of the orchard, is at one with his plants in his last days.

“The air had something to do with the light and the quality of light – piercingly golden – and also the lives of the trees, exuding oxygen, the air that silently racked the cabin. The air he drew into his lungs still had something of the trees’ inner life about it, the saturated dreams of chlorophyll and sunshine and water, gravity and roots and the roots’ design. Fruit. This was autumn light. Somehow he had always known this would be the season into which he would disappear.”


The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Before emojis, there was a way to express emotions through images, not through the digital universe but through the far more personal world of flowers. It’s called floriography – a coded communication assigning meanings to flowers. The Victorian language of flowers did just that. French author Charlotte de Latour started the trend in 1819 with Le Language des Fleurs. She researched flower symbolism throughout history in poetry, mythology and medicine. The idea took hold and dictionaries sprang up to guide readers in selecting the right flower to convey the right emotion. Illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), produced one of the more popular dictionaries, Language of Flowers.

Well known – red roses to a sweetheart – a declaration of love.

Less known –basil spread over Caprese salad – a sprinkle of hate.

Endearing – moss, a symbol of a maternal love, a love that needs no roots (moss has none).

In The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh uses this secret language to define her protagonist, Victoria Jones. Victoria has been in the foster care system since birth. It’s heartbreaking to watch her try to grow up. The book begins with her emancipation, her eighteenth birthday, when she is set loose to find her way as an ill-prepared adult. The book asks, “What is it like to try to love if you’ve never been loved yourself?” Here is the author’s heartfelt explanation:

Chapters alternate between eighteen year old Victoria trying to navigate on her own, and nine year old Victoria taken in by Elizabeth, a single woman whose home is in a vineyard. She teaches Victoria the meaning of flowers.

“These flowers are starwort,” she said. “Starwort means welcome. By giving you a bouquet of starwort, I’m welcoming you to my home, to my life.”

Confronted by real love for the first time, Victoria panics; she runs. She has only rejection in her memory bank. She can’t imagine herself worthy of love from anyone. Her life with Elizabeth doesn’t work out. She won’t let it. She’s shipped back to foster care until her time is up. But what she learned from Elizabeth about the meaning of flowers stays with her. It’s her one successful mode of communication. She can make a living in a florist shop creating bouquets that change people’s lives.

She meets a young man, Grant, a flower grower, a rare man who also understands the meaning of flowers. He gives her mistletoe, meaning “I surmount all obstacles.” She reacts the only way she can, rejecting his love. Again she believes herself unworthy. Victoria’s road to self-understanding is long. Her antics make the reader gulp with pain watching her fits and starts. Could young love have any more obstacles?

Along with the foster care system and the secret language of flowers, Diffenbaugh tackles maternal love, Elizabeth’s and Victoria’s for her own daughter. In an interview, the author gives her take on maternal love.

“It is a belief in our society that we mother as we have been mothered; that both love and abuse pass through generations like plants draw water from the ground. But the truth is that love – like moss – is self-contained. It draws neither from our past nor our future; it is separate even from those we love. It projects out but stays whole within itself and does not attach. When we look at love this way it is possible to see that we are all capable of loving our children, deeply and completely, regardless of our past or our circumstances.”

This is the bouquet Diffenbaugh would present to Victoria or any mother:

Heliotrope – devoted affection

Black-eyed Susan – justice

Hawthorn – hope

Liatris – I will try again

Lisianthus – appreciation

Moss  – maternal love

Victoria rejects her daughter, leaving her with Grant. Wisely he names her Hazel – reconciliation. Will Victoria reconcile, will she be able to love herself, love her child, forgive herself and believe herself worthy of someone else’s love? Try not to scream out at the pages and hold your breath.

In the Garden Trilogy, Blue Dahlia, Black Rose, Red Lily, Nora Roberts


Blue DahliaBlack RoseRed Lily

There is no doubt Nora Roberts loves gardens and gardening. She tells us so in a letter to the reader at the beginning of each volume of this trilogy. For her it’s not a hobby, it’s a passion. In Blue Dahlia she says:

“Planting a flower is like opening a book, because either way you’re starting something. And your garden’s your library.”

Her blog confirms this. Back in 2014 she posted a garden Update to show her fans the blooms around her home.

In the Garden three contemporary women find romance. In Blue Dahlia, book one, Stella, a young widow who lost her husband in an airplane crash, finds work managing the garden center and finds love with Logan, a wild and talented landscaper. In book two, Black Rose, Roz Harper, the forty something widow and owner of the garden center, finds love with Mitch Carnegie, a professor specializing in genealogy. In book three, Red Lily, Hayley, a young pregnant girl finds employment in the garden center and love with Harper, Roz’s son, a plant scientist.

This is a romance, a ghost story and a mystery. But above all it’s the story of women supporting women. Roz, Stella and Hayley are there for each other through the personal trials of each in three volumes.

But there’s a fourth woman who wasn’t so lucky to have the help of sisterhood.  Amelia is the ghost who travels through all three volumes, causing havoc in the night for those living at the Harper estate. She had been wronged by a Harper male generations ago and will not rest quietly in her grave until she claims her rightful place in the Harper family tree. That’s where the genealogist comes in.

Roberts has skillfully crafted a multigenerational story documenting the changing mores and the changing expectations of women through the years.  Each generation of women must fight to control its destiny.

Stella fights through the horrific trauma of suddenly losing the love of her life and the father of her boys. She must also make peace with her extreme need to organize and allow romance once more into her heart.

Roz must own up to her mistake of not recognizing a cad before she tied the knot. Reeling from that disastrous relationship, she has to give herself permission to embrace Mitch, the wonderful professor of genealogy.

After Hayley lost her father she sought comfort in a young man. They both moved on before she found herself pregnant and alone. She chose not to saddle him with a child when she found him happy in another relationship. Arriving at Harper House she was warmly welcomed and given a job.  With the support of Roz and Stella, she conquered her fears and scored a lasting love with Roz’s son. However the characters solve their problems, in Nora Roberts’ books they are not judged, only given support.

Winding through all three stories, Amelia’s ghost shows herself to the women. She is keenly drawn to children. Through research, Stella, Roz and Hayley come to understand the cruel circumstances of Amelia’s life and help her finally find peace.

There are all manner of garden tips sprinkled throughout In the Garden – how to plant a tree, graft plants, hybridize, force bulbs, care for seedlings. Each woman in the trilogy is renewed by the plants and each brings her own knowledge and talent to running the nursery.

Gardeners love to share. Nora Roberts echoes the universal wish of those who garden.

“At the end of a long day, whether it’s writing or gardening, or just dealing with the dozens of chores life hands out, there’s nothing quite like a walk in the garden to soothe the mind and heart.”

“In the garden is joy and beauty, work and reward. I hope you make your own.”

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

photo signature

Elizabeth Gilbert uses a wide angle lens to explore the life story of her protagonist, Alma Whittaker. It’s a novel of self-discovery spanning the many decades of Alma’s life.

Gilbert begins in 1760 in the village of Richmond outside London where Alma’s father, Henry is born. His father, in turn, is a humble orchardman in the gardens of Kew, King George III’s royal botanical gardens. While Henry’s childhood is lived in poverty, he soaks up his father’s considerable tree knowledge and gets an up close look at how the wealthy live. He learns a lot about the trees but is humiliated by the poverty. With a quick mind, industriousness and a bit of luck, Henry makes the most of his circumstances and gets out of there to explore the world. His luck is that he explores it with Captain James Cook and botanist, David Nelson.

Fast forward to January 5th, 1800, the city of Philadelphia.  Alma Whittaker is born to Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, the richest family in the city. All their riches come from plants, processing medicinal plants, exporting American plants to Europe, importing tropical plants to America. Henry creates a botanical empire.

Poor Alma. She is born with “a face like a bowl of porridge, and was pale as a painted floor.” She’s a sturdy child who grows into a big boned woman with a cockscomb of untamable ginger hair and hands that are not delicate. The fact that her adopted sister, Prudence is the greatest beauty in Philadelphia doesn’t help young Alma. She asks her beloved housekeeper, Hanneke de Groot, what to do with her pain.

“Well, child, you may do whatever you like with your suffering.” Hanneke said mildly. “It belongs to you. But I shall tell you what I do with mine. I grasp it by the small hairs, I cast it to the ground, and I grind it under the heel of my boot. I suggest you learn to do the same.”

But Alma is bright like her mother and tenacious like her father. Her sponge-like mind wants to know the reason for everything. “Alma was a girl possessed by a soaring enthusiasm for systems, sequence, pigeonholing, and indexes; botany provided ample opportunity to indulge in all these pleasures.”  Study of the natural world comes naturally for she has the whole of White Acre estate to explore. She accepts her spinsterhood and gives herself over to the study of mosses. When asked what draws her to such plain, dull plants she answers:

“Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel, and turn that gravel into topsoil. Under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will itself turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray – the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements. St. Peter’s Basilica itself was built from the stuff, both created by and stained with the bodies of ancient moss colonies.”

And so Alma begins her quest for the signature of all things. Along the way she meets Ambrose Pike, a young, talented botanical illustrator. She falls desperately in love. They seem to be of compatible minds. But signals have been crossed.  Alma is plunged into despair on discovering that her new husband expects a spiritual union, not a conjugal one. She banishes him to her vanilla bean plantation in Tahiti where he perishes.

Alma has many miles to go on her self-discovery journey. She heads off to Tahiti to discover the spirit of her lost husband. There she encounters a rare man named Tomorrow Morning and the rarest of gleaming cave mosses – Schistotega pennata.

“The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though – smashing through the world of sight – it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast. “

Alma fulfills herself in her discovery of Ambrose and begins the voyage home. Home is now Amsterdam, her mother’s ancestral birthplace. During her months on the ocean, Alma makes her most important discovery. All living things can be divided into two groups: those who fight to live and those who give up and die.

“This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.”

Alma doesn’t publish her findings.  Every question has not been answered to her satisfaction. She learns of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s comforting to know that someone else has come to the same realization by studying finches. And besides, she believes Darwin says it better.

Readers may know Elizabeth Gilbert from her wildly popular Eat, Pray, Love  which made her a literary star. In an interview in Oprah magazine she explains her reasoning for The Signature of All Things.

“I wanted to write about somebody who doesn’t get everything she wanted, and is able to look at her life and say it was an interesting one, a worthy one, a dignified one.”

Tulip Fever, Deborah Moggach

Imagine, the first really big boom and bust in the history of financial markets was over plants – tulip bulbs.

It is the 1630s in The Netherlands. People are enchanted by the beauty of the newly arrived Turkish bulbs. Their value climbs into the stratosphere with every level of society trying to get in on the action. It’s a country gone mad with some betting their very homes on the value of one bulb. In 1637 the Dutch government steps in to stop the craziness and declares them worth ten percent of what speculators are paying. The move is too late and all lose in the depression that follows.

This is the Golden Age in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the richest city in Europe because of its far-flung shipping trade. The Dutch East India Company brings to the city exotic goods from all over the globe. Everyone from fishmonger to ship owner has extra guilders.

The Reformation is in full swing with Calvinism taking over Amsterdam. Catholics are tolerated but their churches closed. They are allowed to worship in private homes but only members of the Reformed Church can hold public office.  The new religion doesn’t go in for elaborate decoration like the Roman church. That dries up church patronage of the arts. Wealthy Dutch businessmen take up the slack and commission art for their homes. Portraits and Dutch interior paintings are in vogue.

Deborah Moggach deftly uses this historical setting in Tulip Fever, her tale of love and betrayal.  It’s the story of Sophia, a lovely young girl from a recently impoverished Catholic family who is married off to a widower, Cornelis Sandvoort, who has already lost two children and a wife. He is Protestant, wealthy and greatly desires an heir. Sophia submits to his nightly attempts to bring that child into being. She is grateful for his support of her family but thinks of herself as an upturned beetle pressed down by a shoe in their bed. Not exactly a romantic description of lovemaking.

Enter handsome young artist Jan van Loos. Cornelis hires him to paint their portrait. He buys a bouquet of Tulipa Clusiana to include in the portrait.

“Do they not remind us of the transitory nature of beauty, how that which is lovely must one day die?” he says.

Yes, beauty is transitory and so is youth and passion and the stock market. Hold your breath. Moggach’s prose is exquisite. Here are the Dutch after Sunday church.

“Churchgoing has purified them; they have repented their sins and been made whole; they have been saved from eternal damnation. They move like a black wave through the streets. Their souls are as scrubbed clean as the doorsteps along the way; their faith is as shiny as the door knockers. How clean is his nation, scoured both within and without!”

As tulip bulbs fuel recklessness in the people of Amsterdam, love ignites madness in Sophia. She and her maid Maria, concoct an outlandish plot. Circumstances have left them with no other choice, they believe.  But fear of the supernatural creeps in on Sophia. She sees condemnation as she walks the streets of Amsterdam.

“It’s raining. I hurry down the Street of Cheeses, down toward the harbor. The place is deserted. In the shops the huge Goudas sit like boulders; they sit in judgment.”

Amsterdam is a significant character in Tulip Fever.  Its beauty is mirrored in its canals; its energy bursts out of its warehouses. Like a woman, the city has many faces -the rinsed-clean look of a sunny day – the moodiness of a misty night.

“Nights are eerily still. Fog rises off the water. Figures can slip through the alleys undetected, for the fog is so dense that a man can scarcely see his hand in front of his face. Amsterdam is a city of ghosts, of crimes that leave no trace, for those who commit them are swallowed up into the vaporous night.”

This is a well told morality tale attesting to the greed of all. It is greed for beauty, deceptive beauty at that. For the most prized tulips with bold stripes and patterns are products of a virus. Only many years later do botanists make that discovery. So the Dutch, with their big windows open to the world, are still deceived. Jan, the artist, knows all about that. He looks at his painting of Sophia.

“She stands there motionless. She is suspended, caught between past and present. She is color, waiting to be mixed; a painting, ready to be brushed into life. She is a moment, waiting to be fixed forever under a shiny varnish.”

Alicia Vikander is lovely as Sophia in the movie version of Tulip Fever. Christoph Waltz is a believable combination of pomposity and generosity as her husband Cornelis. There are many good things about the movie. But Moggach’s prose is what gives the book its magic. The tulip is a mistress to speculators caught in her embrace.

“Tulipomania has claimed him too, and what a mistress she is! She flirts with other men; she leads them on. In the end, however, just when he thinks he might lose her, she surrenders to him. She gives herself up gladly to his arms, and a spasm of pleasure floods his body. For a while he is sated. Then the hunger rises again; the hunger is unslakable. That is the sort of mistress she is. Who could resist her?”

Black Orchids; A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Rex Stout


On a windy autumn morning we took a walk down west 35th street heading toward the Hudson River. After passing 9th Avenue and Dyer Street and before reaching 10th Avenue we spotted it on the building at 454.


IMAG0515The plaque was placed there by The Wolfe Pack, the name the Nero Wolfe  Society goes by.  The sight of it sent us back to the Manhattan of the 1930s and 40s, Nero Wolfe comfortably seated in his special chair in his brownstone, his leg man, Archie Goodwin, hot footing it around the city in search of clues. Through seventy-three mysteries, Wolfe dotes on orchids, but in Black Orchid, he shows the length to which he would go to obtain one or three.

Those familiar with Rex Stout mysteries know Wolfe’s ironclad schedule of spending two hours every morning (9 to 11) and two hours every afternoon (4 to 6) with his rooftop orchids. Solving mysteries must take place outside those hours.  He employs a live-in orchid expert named Theodore Horstmann, who sleeps up there. In “Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids,” Rex Stout assures us that growing orchids is not difficult with the right conditions, but breeding them is more complex than the work of a surgeon. Hybridizing is a career and Wolfe is committed to creating new orchids from the 10,000 already in his possession.

In Black Orchids Stout makes the plant business central to the plot. At the annual New York Flower Show there is a display of three black orchids. Not much can get Wolfe out of his made-to-fit yellow leather chair; so he sends Archie to study them on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and look for signs of wilt. Finally, on Thursday he must have a look for himself. He pushes his seventh of a ton frame from the yellow chair to take a trip to the show.

On his way to view the orchids Wolfe passes another display that has fascinated his assistant all week. Archie doesn’t know a peony from an azalea, but he knows a good looking gal when he sees one.  She is Anne Tracy, a young secretary for the nursery in charge of the display. She pantomimes a picnic in a woodland glade with a handsome fellow. They pick flowers, eat lunch, read on the grass and each afternoon at four he lies down with a newspaper over his head to take a nap. She takes off her shoes and stockings and wiggles her toes in the pool. The crowd swells. Wolfe is there too and notes that the broadleaf evergreens on display look sickly. That’s where a fictitious disease comes in – Kurume yellows, fatal to broadleaf evergreens and highly contagious.

At 4:30 Anne flips a little water out of the pool onto her sleeping co-star. That’s his cue to wake up. But on Thursday he doesn’t. It just so happens that the walking stick of the black orchid owner is found behind the door to the display, connected to a string that is connected to the pistol that shot the man so silently in the head as he lay in the grass. Wolfe’s offer to purchase a black orchid has already been roundly refused. He now seizes this new opportunity. He will solve the mystery and his payment will be not one but three black orchids. The black orchid owner fusses at the terms but sees no way out. Wolfe is even willing to sit on an uncomfortable little stool that barely supports him to further his investigation. That’s how important the black orchids are.

Why are the Nero Wolfe mysteries still popular?  After all, the last volume was published over forty years ago. Crime always comes about from universal human frailties like envy and greed. Stout knew that so he created a lazy, obese, genius detective. Then he added a sidekick who is the wisecracking New York version of Huck Finn. Who wouldn’t want to get a front seat on the shenanigans of these two. Here’s what we found on Dec 1st at Pete’s Tavern on 18th street near Gramercy Square. An enthusiastic group of Wolfe Pack members gathered upstairs in a private room to discuss the novella “Before I Die” and watch an A&E TV episode of the book. Conversation was lively and the food was good.

The Wolfe Pack is  forty years old and boasts over 500 members. Aside from the main pack in New York City there are racemes that meet in New England, the Mid Atlantic, Western New York state and online. (Orchids form elongated clusters of flowers called racemes along the main stem, bottom flowers opening first. Thus, a raceme is a local offshoot of the pack.) Each year the society announces its Annual Black Orchid Novella Award at the Black Orchid Banquet. It is given to the best submission that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series. They publish a journal, The Gazette, twice a year and hold monthly book discussions.

You may wonder why Rex Stout’s mysteries are included in garden-friendly fiction, for the books are unquestionably who-dun-its. My reasoning is Nero Wolfe is truly besotted by orchids and his dedication is apparent in each mystery. How many gardeners spend four hours a day, each and every day, at garden tasks? And he cuts an orchid bloom each day to grace his desktop where he spends the rest of the day when he is not cooking and eating with Chef Fritz Brenner or sleeping in his yellow pajamas.

Nero Wolfe has been accused of misogyny; his household is all male and unlike Archie he never exhibits a romantic interest.  Could it be that to Wolfe the orchid is the mistress who never disappoints?  Whether she’s a showy Cattleya or a shy Cymbidium, under his unfaltering care she showers him with unending beauty and faithfulness. To those who say Nero Wolfe mysteries are not garden-friendly fiction, I say, “Pfui.”


The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”

This opening line of The Secret Garden is as classic as the first words of Pride and Prejudice. The story continues by describing ten year old Mary “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.” She was always given her own way by her servants in India. Her parents were ashamed of her plainness and neglected her. So how she turned out when they died of cholera and left her an orphan was not really her fault.

The Secret Garden was unique in its time as Frances portrayed two distinctly unlikable children who, without the help of adults, pull themselves up out of malaise and nastiness to discover their own goodness and purpose in life. As contrived and full of prejudice as the story is, its concept of thinking positive thoughts to attain a positive life inspires young minds. Mary was pampered with all the physical necessities of life, but denied love and counsel and interest by anyone at all.

I have heard so many people point out The Secret Garden as a favorite childhood book. Though dated in attitude, something about it is magic to young readers. I think the obstinate girl, who would never think to ask permission, sleuthing through locked doors and hidden rooms is universally mysterious and captivating.

Frances’ own life has parallels to Mary’s. She was born in England into an affluent family. Her father died when she was five, considerably reducing the family’s circumstances. She was transplanted to a foreign country (America) as a child where her family lived in poverty.

Frances sold her first story to Godey’s Lady’s Book when she was eighteen. Her writing became the main support of her family. Her novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess, brought her fame and wealth. But The Secret Garden, published in 1909, is the one that has hung on and is considered a children’s classic.

Frances was inspired by the Christian Science Movement, newly popular at the time. She embraced its philosophy of mind over body. All healing is possible if only one pushes out negative thoughts. Christian Science philosophy guides the story line. Mary and her cousin Colin, an invalid confined to a wheelchair, heal themselves through nature, fresh air, gardening and positive thinking.

The ‘secret’ in the title is fitting for the garden is a secret, locked and abandoned for the ten years since Colin’s mother was tragically killed by a fallen tree branch. Mary and Colin are secreted away in the hundred room manor where servants and masters alike are forbidden to explore. Mary’s uncle has hidden himself away from his son by incessant traveling. The story of Colin’s mother’s death is a secret. Only the poor local families are free of secrets and presumably healthy and happy because of that.

What is probably so enticing for children is the spunk in Mary. She hears weird cries in the night and is told to dismiss the sounds, but steals through the dark corridors anyway until she finds her cousin Colin. He’s as nasty as she is, but she dismisses his complaint that he is destined to grow a grotesque hunchback and will soon be at death’s door.

Slyly Mary introduces Colin to the secret garden to which she has found the key. She has also found the old curmudgeon gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who knows the history of the secret garden and is finally won over by Mary’s doggedness. Her other new friend, Dickon Sowerby, possesses close to divine qualities and communes with all wild creatures. Together the cousins and Dickon work to reclaim the garden and secretly plot to surprise Colin’s father with a healthy, straight-backed, walking son.

From their first meeting, Dickon enchants Mary with the magic of the moor in his broad Yorkshire dialect.

“There’s naught as nice as th’ smell o’ good clean earth, except th’ smell o’ fresh growin’ things when th’ rain falls on ‘em. I get out on th’ moor many a day when it’s rainin’ an’ I lie under a bush an’ listen to th’ soft swish o’ drops on th’ heather an’ I just sniff an’ sniff. My nose end fair quivers like a rabbit’s, Mother says.”

By the end of the book, Mary and Colin have worked harder than they had ever worked before, loving every minute of their secret mission. Archibald Craven finally comes home to a son he can hardly recognize and a garden brought back to the way it was meant to be.

The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet and flaming scarlet, and on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together – lilies which were white or white and ruby. He remembered well when the first of them had been planted that, just at this season of the year, their late glories should reveal themselves. Late roses climbed and hung and clustered, and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an embowered temple of gold. The newcomer stood silent just as the children had done when they came into its grayness. He looked round and round.
“I thought it would be dead,” he said.

There are many editions of The Secret Garden. The photo above is a recent hardcover edition published by Canterbury Classics. The beautiful illustrations are by Kelly Caswell.