Last year I read and loved The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter (my review). When I discovered she had a new book out this year and that it was a reworking of The Secret Garden I as eager to see what she would do with it. The Humming Room is faithful to the original plot while bringing the story into a more modern world.
Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life. As it turns out, Roo, much to her surprise, has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river? People are lying to her, and Roo becomes determined to find the truth. Despite the best efforts of her uncle's assistants, Roo discovers the house's hidden room--a garden with a tragic secret.
Roo is the best thing about this book and she captures the reader's heart from the beginning as she huddles under her trailer hiding after her father's murder. She is a loner who won't admit she is lonely, but revels in the wild freedom she has in the new island home she has been brought to. It was easy to go along with her for her story and experience it with her. I also very much liked the character of Jack, actually I liked him a bit better than his counterpart, Dicken, in the original story. He was a bit more wild and unpredictable and seemed to view more as an equal and less as a protege. I did wonder if I was projecting a bit of what I knew of the original characters onto these characters as I read, particularly Roo. I didn't really like Philip much at all though. He is the counterpart to Colin in this and I found him less sympathetic and hard to reconcile with the 21st century time.
The setting is a strong element in this. The house the characters inhabit is an old children's tuberculosis hospital, complete with an old chute for sending out dead bodies. It is located on an island and Potter brings the scenery to life with her prose.
Here is the question: Does The Secret Garden need a retelling or an updating? I think that will depend on who you ask. There are many purists who will say no. There are many who have fond nostalgic memories of the original who will say no. Hand a 9-12 year old girl a copy of both books and which she chooses will probably depend a great deal on whether she enjoys contemporary or historical novels (and on which edition of The Secret Garden you are offering up). As a teacher I had about two dozen fifth graders check The Secret Garden out either from my classroom library or the school library. Only a handful of them finished it. They just couldn't relate. A story about a girl whose drug dealer father is murdered while she hides under the trailer? Unfortunately, that wouldn't have been so hard for them to understand. So I like that this book is here now and I certainly think it has a place on the shelves of classrooms and libraries. And if it inspires some kids to read the original, so much the better.
The copy of this I reviewed was an e-galley received via NetGalley. The book will be in stores on February 28.