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Darkness and Light in 'The Secret Garden'

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Darkness and Light in 'The Secret Garden'

Darkness and Light in 'The Secret Garden'

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Our series, You Must Read This, gives authors a chance to talk about the books they love. Today, we'll hear from writer, Sloane Crosley. She's also a publicist at Vintage Books. She tells us about a story that features a nasty child heroine, a bleak secret, and lots of flowers.

Ms. SLOANE CROSLEY (Writer; Publicist, Vintage Books): Whatever the opposite of seasonal affective disorder is, I have it. I love the winter, especially in Manhattan where the funneled winds dare you to leave your house in the morning. I am dubious of spring's high expectations for renewal, those months when it is commonly considered an infraction to be inside ever. Which is perhaps the reason I have always found solace in Frances Burnett's "The Secret Garden."

"The Secret Garden" is the story of Mary Lennox, a bitter and selfish little girl who hates the world and everyone in it. After she is orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with an estranged uncle on his sprawling, creepy English country estate. When she first arrives, she is pale and thin and sporting a personality that would smell like sour milk if it could. She detests the outdoors.

With a little help from her maid and a boy named Dickon, Mary gradually develops the pleasant demeanor of a normal girl. So, paradoxically, India made Mary pale, hostile and unaccustomed to strange foods, whereas England makes her healthy, rose-cheeked and full of Zen. As the book's title unsubtly suggests, there is also a garden involved, complete with hidden door and buried key.

In many obvious ways, there is no finer novel — young adult or otherwise — to reread while those first fingers of green are poking up through the ground. There is no single book that can more readily transport you into spring as you sit underneath a tree and listen to some bird whose name you don't remember whistle a tune that you do.

But the real reason to love this book is because, not unlike the garden hidden in plain sight around which it centers, the novel itself has its own dark secret. And that is the following: It is not a very nice book, despite its goody-goody reputation. The illustrations, should have been rendered by Edward Gorey. "The Secret Garden" is about neglect. Of plants and of people.

Back in India, Mary's mother was a socialite who never wanted her. After the cholera epidemic dissipates, it takes fully five days before Mary is found alone, in the dark of her bungalow. Her only company had been a snake. Mary is taken to England, where everyone she meets repeatedly insults her to her face. Her only friend is a robin and her only solace is found in being alone.

One night, Mary hears crying in a distant corridor of the mansion and goes to investigate. Curled up among the dusty tapestries is a different boy — Colin, her uncle's sickly son. It takes Mary, little strumpet that she is, about a page and a half to spill the seeds about the secret garden.

"The Secret Garden" is half charm, half wickedness, half summer and half winter. At one point Mary asks her maid why the garden was locked in the first place. She gradually learns of its painful history, but in that innocent question lies the lasting magic of "The Secret Garden." It is always the flowers that one notices first before inspecting the dirt below.

NORRIS: Sloane Crosley is the author of the forthcoming book of essays, "I Was told They'd Be Cake." You can find an excerpt from "The Secret Garden" and more You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org/books.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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