Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Not-So-Secret Gardens

I sent off the paper this morning that I'm submitting for the edited collection celebrating the upcoming 100th anniversary of the publication (in 1911) of The Secret Garden. My paper looks at a collection of books, mainly picture books but also two longer works, published in the last decade of the last century that seem to borrow extensively from The Secret Garden, in that in almost every single book, children from disparate socio-economic backgrounds, themselves maimed or hurting in various ways, come together to reclaim an abandoned plot of ground, turning it into a flourishing garden. In the process, the individuals themselves are healed, and as they heal themselves, they also heal their community.

My paper argues that the profliferation of these books on Burnett's resonant theme, all published in such a short period of time, contribute to making the theme seem predictable and doctrinaire, the slavish following of a formula rather than an original re-inhabiting of a timeless truth. There are only so many times that one can read about a vacant lot in the inner city, littered with junk and garbage, transformed by an ethnically diverse group of children and adults (including, always, at least one person in a wheelchair), into a celebration of community. The most egregiously heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme is Newbery-medalist Paul Fleischman in Seedfolks, who offers us no fewer than 13 almost instantaneous transformations of his narrating characters, often at their very first glimpse of the garden-in-progress. His characters are Vietnamese, Rumanian, Guatemalan, Jewish, Haitian, Korean, Mexican, Indian, British. . . And just as the cynical reader asks, "But where is the person in the wheelchair?" in rolls Mr. Myers, African-American AND in a wheelchair.

But of course, as an author myself I know that none of these authors set out to write something banal and formulaic. It's more the accumulated totality of all the books together that contributes to this numbing effect. So maybe it's unfair to be so critical. It isn't any one author's fault that everybody else had the same idea at roughly the same time in publishing history. Well, perhaps except for Fleischman, who himself had the same idea 13 times in the span of a single book.

And yet I can't help remembering my high school English teacher who summarized the plot of King Lear for us in six words: "Eyes, eyes, blindness, blindness, get it?" Here, it feels like, "Gardens, gardens, healing, healing. Get it?"

I got it.


  1. Yes, but, but, but.... Fleishman's "Seedfolks" works so beautifully in ESL classes, particularly at the high school level where it is difficult to motivate newcomers and discouraged second language learners. It also reminds me of my community gardening experiences in Denver where we were a ragtag lot. All the same, I really want to read your analysis of the situation sometime, because it sounds like a fun paper.

  2. Alicia, you are so kind and generous. Thanks for the reminder that a story that seems simplistic to cynical adults may seem very different to younger readers.

  3. What you say about older and younger readers also seems to apply to movies. Sometimes I think I've given up on enjoying movies altogether when I get the "been there, seen that" feeling. But I guess there are others who haven't been there and seen that, because some movies are extremely successful despite receiving a thumbs down from me. Imagine! And yes, I'm reading your site at this moment not only because it stimulates my brain but also because I am avoiding writing something. Imagine!

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  5. My former church has a garden like this, called "Rick's Garden". You can check it out here. It was created to honor a neighborhood resident who was murdered near the church, and it was an important symbol of the resurrection for our congregation. Also it was a transformation for Rick's brother Robb, who led the construction of the garden, joined the church, and became a real leader in the neighborhood.

    Maybe gardens can be formulaic for literature, but it is a good formula for real life.