Wednesday, May 23, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter

If you're nerd enough to be reading this blog, you probably know that Betsy Bird is redoing her Top 100 Picture and Chapter Books polls over at Fuse 8. She's counting down from 100 for both lists, and I fully expect The Secret Garden to appear within - or quite close to - the single digits of the Chapter Books list. People looooooove that book. They lurve it. They loaf it. (Myself included.)

So you'd have to have a mighty pair of ovaries in order to re-imagine Burnett's masterpiece, and that's just what Ellen Potter does with The Humming Room. In place of spoiled colonialist-spawn Mary Lennox, we have neglected trailer-dwelling Roo Fanshaw, who survives the slaughter of her parents by hiding underneath said trailer. In place of a mansion in Yorkshire, we have a former sanitarium on an island in the St. Lawrence river. And there are, of course, a sickly cousin, a grieving uncle, a wild boy, and a secret garden.

Ellen Potter writes maddeningly uneven books. I would argue that the best portions of The Humming Room are better than the best 2012 has offered so far. Roo Fanshaw is a wonderful character, and Potter is shrewd to point out that neglect happens amid both luxury and poverty. Like Mary Lennox, Roo is believably unlikeable in the early chapters, protecting herself with a habitual sullen ferocity. Then, of course, the seeds of her innate goodness germinate in the rocky soil of the island with a satisfying inevitability.

In any retelling of The Secret Garden, the setting must become a character in itself, and Potter succeeds in bringing her world to life with lyrical, Romantic prose. The St. Lawrence nourishes its inhabitants and shapes their characters in obvious and subtle ways. The house itself, formerly a sanitarium for children with tuberculosis - is appropriately creepy. And her take on the garden is fresh and delightful.

Where Potter falters a bit is in her secondary characters. Cousin Phillip, the uncle, and the wild boy are all underdeveloped, and they do not differ sufficiently from their parallels in Burnett's work. It feels like Potter spent all of her time lovingly crafting Roo and her world, and then plugged in the other necessary elements in a halfhearted 1:1 ratio. They don't stand up well beside Roo.

Still, like The Kneebone Boy before it, this is a lovely book, and I eagerly await the masterpiece that I know Ellen Potter is going to write one of these days. She's one of the best middle-grade authors we have.

Feiwel and Friends, February 2012

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