The Secret Garden is one of my favourite classics and when I heard that Ellen Potter (one of my favourite contemporary kid’s writers) was writing a modern retelling I was intrigued.
After Roo’s parents are murdered, she is sent to a remote island called Cough Rock where her reclusive uncle lives in an old children’s sanatorium. Roo is free to wander the grounds, discovering the wonder of the outside world, including an odd boy named Jack, who claims to live on the river. Jack seems to know everything about the wildlife of the island, but even he doesn’t know what causes the mysterious humming in the house, or the secrets hidden in the forbidden east wing.
The parallels to TSG are plenty- Like Mary, Roo is a sickly, under-loved and stubborn child who is healed by a connection to the earth. Jack has an almost mystical connection to the land and animals, much like Dickon. Cranky and forgotten cousin Phillip is Colin. Instead of a sprawling, walled English garden we have a domed tropical paradise hidden away on a wild island.
Although I very much enjoyed this book, Potter has set herself up to compared to Burnett’s classic. It’s a good book, but unfortunately doesn’t live up to it’s predecessor they way I had hoped it would. Overall, I felt that The Humming Room was lighter than I wanted it to be. It is not as richly detailed as TSG. I found myself wanting more detail and more history. I felt Potter skimmed the surface of the story, providing just enough plot, character and detail, to service the reader, but missing out on opportunities to embellish or delve deep into character, relationships, and the legends and history surrounding Cough Rock. It is a credit to Potter that I desperately wanted to know more about all of these things, which are so appealingly presented, but I felt like I only got a glimpse of the world of the book when I wanted to be fully immersed inside of it.
Comparisons aside, Potter is a wonderful middle grade writer. Her books (The Olivia Kidney Books, Slob, The Kneebone Boy) are varied and unique and I’m always excited to see what she comes up with next. I love her prose style and I think she takes great risks and leaps of faith in a genre that many authors are satisfied just to tow the line. Fans of Kevin Henkes’ middle grade, Kit Pearson, and of course, The Secret Garden, will enjoy this contemporary re-telling.
The Humming Room is available in hard cover now from Feiwel and Friends.