Review: The Humming Room

The Humming Room (a novel inspired by The Secret Garden) by Ellen Potter. A Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Middle grade. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Orphaned Roo goes to live with her newly discovered rich uncle. Neglected and will, she loves nature and the out of doors. She prefers being alone.

Her uncle lives on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, in a former children’s TB clinic. Roo is now cared for, but isolated, seeing only a handful of her uncle’s employees.

Roo hears a mysterious humming, and it leads her to a secret garden.

The Good: As someone who has also read The Secret Garden, I enjoyed seeing what Potter used, and what she tweaked, and what she re-imagined. She’s done such a good job, especially with what she discarded.

Roo’s life before she moves in with her uncle is pretty grim: her mother abandoned her. Her father is charming, but he also neglects her. He, with his current girlfriend, are murdered by drug dealers in a trailer park. She is a neglected child, used to taking care of herself.

Uncle Emmett, her father’s brother, is in his own way as neglectful of family as his brother. He gives her no warm greeting; no love. Eventually, the reader discovers what has happened in Emmett’s life that results in his being unable to welcome her. Unlike his brother, Emmett is a financial success and can take care of his niece’s physical needs: a home, clothes, food, education. That he is not entirely cold to her needs is that he observes the old clothes she wears, that she doesn’t put on the new ones that his assistant bought her, and orders her new clothes in the style and fabric she likes. That is a kindness. Still, he doesn’t give her what she needs: love. Attention. Guidance.

Instead of a moor, the uncle’s house is on the river. The setting is beautifully shown; count this as one of the books that makes me want to travel to where it is set. And that is before Roo discovers the secret garden!

Some further parallels: Roo finds out about Jack, a half-wild boy who doesn’t seem to belong to anyway and who is almost magical in his knowledge of the animals and river. Jack = Dickon, of course, but without a link to any family. Perhaps modern readers would only believe that such an independent child is actually independent?

Of course, Roo discovers a cousin: Phillip (Colin). Instead of Colin’s mysterious ailments, Philip is a lonely child, spoiled and neglected by his father following the tragic death of his mother. Phillip’s illness, that keeps him combined to his house? Depression and grief. He is still mourning the loss of his mother and it is compounded by the physical abandonment of his father, because his father is also grieving. Emmett also feels guilt over his wife’s death: it is tragic, and it is connected to the garden, and I understand why he destroyed it and shut it away. As with The Secret Garden, Phillip is more than Roo’s cousin. He is also her mirror, a way for Roo to see her own flaws.

The garden: I loved how it is hidden and secret! A hint of magic leads Roo to it: she is so in touch with nature that she senses living things, the “humming,” and it is this humming that leads her to search for the garden. How and where it is hidden: not telling.

The Humming Room is, like The Secret Garden, about finding meaning in life by looking outside yourself. Caring for a garden, bringing it back to life, makes Roo (like Mary before her) part of something bigger than herself and establishes a connection with the world that she didn’t have before.

Roo begins, and ends, as a mostly solitary person. Part of it is that emotionally she has been shut off from others; this changes as she works on the garden with Phillip and Jack. Part of it is that not everyone is a people person. As someone who loves alone time, I respect Roo’s need for solitariness and to have alone time. Still, we all need people, and to see Roo begin to trust others, especially those who respect who she is and her needs, is beautiful.

Other reviews: Welcome to My Tweendom; Kirkus Reviews (blog post by Leila Roy); WSJ Bookshelf; the Book Smugglers (joint review).

Review: The Kneebone Boy

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter. 2010. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. Review from ARC provided for review.

The Plot: These are the three Hardscrabble children. Let them introduce themselves: “Otto was the oldest, and the oddest. Then there was Lucia, who wished something interesting would happen. Last of all was Max, who always thought he knew better.”

Something interesting happens when their father goes away on business and sends his children, ages ten to thirteen, to stay with an aunt in London. The problem is, the aunt is herself away on holiday. When they realize that staying in London on their own is not a great idea, Otto, Lucia, and Max set off to find their great-aunt Haddie Piggit. Details such as having never met her and not quite knowing where she is won’t stand in their way, especially when there is a possibility that their great aunt knows something about the disappearance of their mother years before.

The Good: The story of the three Hardscrabbles are told by one of the three. They won’t tell, but my guess is Lucia because of one of the chapter headings: “In which we meet the Hardscrabbles, unearth a triceratops bone, and begin to like Lucia even more.” Yes, that “even more” is part of the reason I suspect Lucia of authorship. But perhaps it is Max, because later we are told “No one knew what Max did up on the chimney, and no one cared enough to try to find out. Which just goes to show, you should always pay attention to the youngest.”  But perhaps it is Otto, because this observation sounds more like a thirteen year old speaking: “They never enjoyed it when adults playfully lied to them. The adults always think they’re being amusing and imaginative, just like children. But kids never lie playfully. They lie as if their lives depended on it.”

How best to describe the humor? It is dark, delicious, biting, sarcastic, arch, and smart. The story itself is smart — almost deceptively so — and with the many layers, I can easily see this appealing to middle school kids , who are about the age of Otto and Lucia. Oh, the language — “All in all they were in that gorgeous state of mind in which they felt free and unafraid and sharply aware of how large and exciting the world was. In other words, it hadn’t gotten dark outside yet.”  Here is a bit on Max “knowing better” about the definition of the word “restive,” showing also how the unknown narrator adds asides to the reader: “”Restive doesn’t mean tired,” Max said finally. “It means nervous.” It does actually. I looked it up later. However, I woudn’t advise using that word because it will only annoy people, and they will think you are a giant-size prat.” Maybe Lucia is the narrator after all.

The Hardscrabbles have not had an easy life. Their mother disappeared years ago, and rumors fly in their tiny village, including ones about Otto, thirteen. It’s said that he strangled his mother with the very scarf he wears day and night, summer and winter. (Don’t worry, he didn’t. It’s not that kind of book.) Their father is an artist whose specialty is painting portraits of former royalty, that is, royalty who have lost their thrones and kingdom. It doesn’t pay well and it requires frequent travel. The isolation brought about by their mother going missing (“you can’t have dogs sniffing through your garden to find your missing mum without their being some serious damage to your family’s reputation“) makes these three siblings a tight group, so tight that even though Otto does not speak Lucia understands everything he says with his invented sign language.

The reader finds out that all that the narrator tells us in that first sentence is true. Otto is not just odd; he likes odd things, including odd stories. He manages to acquire a cat with a fifth leg and becomes caught up in the tale of “the Kneebone Boy.” When the children finally find Great-Aunt Haddie, she is living near the Kneebone Castle. The Kneebone Boy is the first boy born in the Kneebone family every generation, a boy with bat ears and claws and other things that require his family to keep him locked away from prying eyes.

Lucia’s desire for adventure leads her to push the three to not go home when they discover their original plan to stay in London has fallen apart. This leads to a day of freedom in London, a scary encounter by a river, and the ultimate discovery of Great-Aunt Haddie.

Max is really a know it all. He deciphers the clues in the one letter they have from Haddie, helping them to discover her. These three threads, the three interests of the Hardscrabbles, weave together to form not just an adventure (children alone, figuring things out!) and a mystery (what happened to their mother? is there a real Kneebone Boy?) but also a story about finding out the truth of things. Sometimes the truth is fun (a secret passage!) and other times, not so much (the mystery of their mother).

Readalikes easily spring to mind: Lemony Snicket, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. For example, one chapter heading warns “in which something awful happens but I can’t say what it is.” Where The Kneebone Boy differs from these books is that, despite the initial appearance of being set in a universe as odd as Otto, it turns out to be very real. When I got to the end of The Kneebone Boy, and realized how story and the tales told shape people, their expectations, their lives, I shivered with the wonderful deliciousness of it all.

What else? A folly! It has a castle folly. And the cover. I love seeing a cover created just for a book. More on the tale of the cover at the MacKids blog. I think it captures Lucia, Otto, and Max perfectly. They look, I think, the way Lucia wants them to look: you’re not quite sure of them. And hidden in the trees…the legs of…who? And is that a crumbling castle in the background?