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Several weeks ago, scraping out the house to get ready for a dinner party, I discovered my copy of “The Secret Garden” in my hands. You remember this tale, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of orphaned Mary who finds herself in Yorkshire, meets mysterious and wonderful people, and discovers the door to a secret garden. I have loved this story since my third grade teacher read it to us, loved it every time I opened it over the years.
So even though people were coming, even though I had to finish dusting and start cooking, I sat on the stairs and poured through it again. Of course I did. A choice between dusting and reading? Don’t be silly.
And I realized I was responding to the story differently. Tears? Really? I hadn’t wept the first 17 times I read it. I got chills, certainly, the first time I read it and moved with Mary through that once-locked door: “She was standing inside the secret garden.”
Chills, yes, but no tears. Not even when Colin wailed and yelled and threw things, not when he discovered he could walk. Not when Mary’s uncle read the letter from Mrs. Sowerby asking him to come home.
This time: tears.
The only other book that has affected me differently over the years is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The first time I read it, I thought it was Scout’s story. Several years later, I decided it was Jem’s. Then later I thought it might be Boo’s. But finally, finally, I realized it’s Atticus’s story.
It was startling and satisfying to realize that a book could change. Even as I realized that it seemed the book was doing the changing, I understood that the book had stayed the same: I was the changed one. I’d gotten older. I could see things now that I couldn’t before.
And now tears spilled down my cheeks as I read “The Secret Garden.” The story had changed, because I had.
First of all: to someone nine or 11, ten years is a long time. A LONG time. That’s how long ago Colin’s mother had died, how long since Archibald Craven had locked his dead wife’s garden and hidden the key.
But after while, ten years becomes just yesterday. Just a moment ago, a snap of the fingers. It’s happened to you; it happened to me. Ten years is nothing.
More important, reading how gardener Ben Weatherstaff reacts to seeing Colin was no longer strange to me. “What Ben Weatherstaff did Mary thought queer beyond measure. He choked and gulped and suddenly tears ran down his weather-wrinkled cheeks as he struck his old hands together.”
Dickon’s mother cries, too, when she sees Colin for the first time:
“The sight of his uplifted face brought about a sudden change in her own. She flushed and the corners of her mouth shook and a mist seemed to sweep over her eyes.
‘Eh! dear lad!’ she broke out tremulously. ‘Eh! dear lad!’ as if she had not known she were going to say it.”
How mysterious I found this, the first several years I read it. But so what? The ways of adults were beyond me, and who knows (when you’re nine or 11) why adults behave the way they do? They weren’t the ones I cared about, anyway, all these ancient adults in the background. Mary and Colin and Dickon–they were the important ones. Not those grownups.
But now, seeing those grownups’ tears, I understood. I understood their history, their emotions, their memories. And understanding, I wept with them. I could see the story not just from the children’s point of view, but from the adults’.
I know of two people who start a book by reading the last chapter. In “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal’s Harry does it because if he dies before he finishes reading, he’ll know how it ends. My friend Michelle does it because she wants to see where the author is going, and wants to see how she gets there.
I’ve been tempted several times lately to do this. But I just can’t. I value anticipation. I suppose Michelle does, too, and would argue that wondering how the author gets to that specific end is just as intriguing as wondering what’s going to happen next and finally. She says it’s a different kind of surprise.
Yeah, I know. I just can’t open the box. I can’t let myself learn the ending until I get there.
But I’ve thought about it.
I’m going to have to talk to my seven-year-old niece about this. Her parents have read to her every night for years, and for years I gave her sumptuous picture books about fairies and fairy tales. Now I learn that she recently read ahead in Harry Potter and annoyed her father because he wanted them to discover the next thing together. Of course, this is exactly what he wants her to do. And his disgruntledness will make sure she does it again.
Wow. Seven. This girl read ahead because she just couldn’t stand not to. Harry Potter.
I’ve made a major adjustment in the kinds of books I’m considering giving her. If she’s reading J.K. Rowling she’s ready for almost anything. Even a discussion about investigating the end before you get there. How delicious.
Meanwhile. Speaking of delicious, you and I get to talk about books again. I figure the first column of the year works just great for this topic. It’s a great way to begin 2014.
“How Music Works” leaped into my hands at the library. Written by John Powell, a musician and a physicist, it’s a book I have to read so carefully that I think I’ll probably buy it.
Recently, however, I raced through two books, unwilling to slow down because I wanted to know what happened.
I recommend “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frey,” by Rachel Joyce. A retired nebbish of a married man in southern England learns that a friend of his is dying on the Scottish coast, and he walks through the country (several hundred miles) to visit her, convinced that the news of his impending visit will encourage her to stay alive. Dense with character and family history and interwoven characters and memories, it’s a touching novel.
I confess I also enjoyed “Letters from Skye,” by Jessica Brockmole. In WWI, a Scottish author living in Skye gets a fan letter from a reader in Chicago–and thus their relationship begins. At least, I liked the story. I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next. But I had a hard time with the writing. Everyone wrote letters in the same style, whether male or female, American or Scottish, no matter what year it was.
I’m having a good time with “Murder on the Yellow Brick Road,” Stuart Kaminsky’s second Toby Peters 1940s Hollywood mystery. I can’t help it–Toby works in Hollywood and drops all these show-biz names of the period: L.B. Mayer, Raymond Chandler and Judy Garland.
Investigating the late Kaminsky is very discouraging: in addition to 24 Toby Peters mysteries, he wrote three other series (six titles in one, 10 in another, 16 in a third) as well as a pile of nonfiction. An extremely productive writer. Sigh.
I recently stumbled over Louise Penny’s 2012 Inspector Gamache novel, “The Beautiful Mystery.” Somehow I missed it when it came out, and I also just realized that her latest, “How the Light Gets In,” appeared in 2013. Good. Two Gamache yarns to look forward to. Maybe I’ll give in and read the last chapter of the one I have, see how she gets from A to Z.
This piece originally appeared in the Auburn (CA) Journal on Jan. 5, 2014