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).