Goodreads: The Secret Garden on 81st Street
Age Category: Middle Grade
After her parents’ deaths, Mary Lennox moves to New York City to live with her uncle. Unused to living in a tech free home, she discovers an abandoned rooftop garden and, with the help of her new friend, her babysitter’s brother Dickon, she begins to bring it back to life. Her cousin Colin, who stays in his room all day, also slowly discovers the magic of the garden. But will Mary’s uncle approve?
The Secret Garden on 81st Street updates Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved classic for a modern audience not only by diversifying the characters and changing the setting to New York City, but also by addressing topics such as loss, grief, and anxiety. The story is charming, but fervent fans of the original may find that some of the magic is lost in the book’s attempts to teach a lesson.
The original Secret Garden also has a moral at its heart, of course, but, somehow, Frances Hodgson Burnett never lets that detract from the story. Discussions of the work seldom mention the quasi-spiritual nature of the book, with its references and pleas to the Magic that makes things grow and, in turn, transforms Mary into a loving, vibrant little girl and makes her cousin Colin physically healthy again. Generations of readers instead seem attracted to the vision of nature presented by Burnett, and thee wonder it evokes. In contrast, The Secret Garden on 81st Street does not tap into that same source of wonder, instead preferring to focus on characters giving speeches about things the characters–and, in turn, readers–should know about mental health.
This modern retelling takes the events of the original and casts them in a new light, one reliant on updated understandings of mental health. Colin, for instance, now experiences anxiety and panic attacks that convince him it is safest for him to stay in his room. Characters like Martha and Mrs. Medlock spend a bit of time explaining the situation to Mary, letting her know that what Colin experiences is real, though she cannot see it. However, the realization of Colin’s experiences only really starts to make sense to Mary after the infamous episode in which she screams at Colin. In the original story, Mary’s tantrum shocks Colin into realizing he cannot always get his own way, and Burnett suggests that this is beneficial to him. In the updated version, Colin’s therapist takes Mary aside to explain that Mary’s screaming is not appropriate, and that she needs to let Colin decide for himself when he is ready to leave his room.
Mary herself gets a modern remake, transforming from a sullen, selfish little girl who has to learn kindness into one who is simply lonely and having difficulty admitting and expressing her grief. In this, she mirrors Colin and his father Archie, who are also dealing with the grief over Archie’s husband’s death in a way that is not altogether healthy. The story, then, moves away from a focus on the healing power of nature instead to a focus on recognizing that everyone deals with grief differently–but that it can help to talk about it and to confront it.
Though Mary does plant a garden in The Secret Garden on 81st Street, the garden really seems somewhat extraneous to the plot. Mary could have engaged in any activity that got the family interested in participating together and thus bonding with each other. The sheer love of nature Burnett seems to have is, frankly, not really captured by a few apparent blog posts Mary makes about what flower or herb she planted recently. And the bulk of the story is really focused more on adults teaching Mary about mental health and grief. There is powerful stuff in here–it is just not about nature.
The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a charming enough tale. However, readers should not expect it to be quite the same thing as The Secret Garden. The story is really all its own–with a new setting, new takes on the characters, and a new focus meant to draw out the inner experiences of the characters in a more direct way. It is an interpretation worth reading–and I think the target audience especially will enjoy it.