The Humming Room
Just over a hundred years ago, readers first met the surly orphan turned sensitive nature lover Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett's now classic children's book, THE SECRET GARDEN. Author Ellen Potter's latest chapter book, THE HUMMING ROOM, was inspired by it but is an inventive and charming story in its own right.
When Roo Fanshaw's father and his girlfriend are murdered in their trailer home, Roo does what she always does: she hides. Under the trailer, she has a garden of treasures: stolen trinkets, fake flowers and a tiny green glass snake. She is saved from the brutal realities of foster care by an uncle she never knew existed, and before she knows it, she is on a boat heading for Cough Rock Island, a stony fortress and former children's hospital on New York's St. Lawrence River. Her uncle, Emmett Fanshaw, seems to want nothing to do with her, and so she is left in the care of the stern Ms. Valentine and the kind-hearted local girl Violet.
Roo is free to explore the Island (provided she can ditch her private tutor long enough) and parts of the house. She discovers treasures and hiding places, and also hears strange noises. Many parts of the strange house remain off limits to her; she is told never to enter the East Wing, for example. Compelled to uncover the source of the noise she hears, a ghost-like crying, Roo makes a set of startling discoveries. First, she finds a huge but near-dead indoor garden at the center of the house. Next, she learns that the crying belongs to her cousin Phillip, who has been shut away, damaged and depressed, inside the house for years.
Even though Roo knows that the garden is tied, either symbolically or actually, to Phillip's mother’s death, she decides to have him help in the restoration. Soon she, Phillip and a mysterious and dashing boy named Jack are coaxing the garden back to life. But will they be allowed to keep working on it if they are discovered? Or will Roo and Jack be sent far away from Cough Rock Island?
Like THE SECRET GARDEN, THE HUMMING ROOM is full of wonder. Roo, like Mary, is a kid not used to much kindness but capable of great insight and emotional generosity. Phillip parallels Colin closely, and the earthy and wise Violet parallels Burnett's Martha. Jack is modeled on Dickon and, like Dickon Jack, has a fantastic and uncanny way with nature. His companion is a heron named Sir (another parallel, this time for the original garden's robin redbreast) but is also friend to terns and minks and other creatures who live along the river. To Roo, he is a bewitching figure --- beautiful, easy-going and profoundly interested in her. With his attention and her work in the garden, Roo grows from a girl who hides to one who seeks out light, life and good.
Potter's success in THE HUMMING ROOM is that, as you read it, you forget this is a retelling of such a familiar story. It is only as you end a chapter or section that, if you are familiar with the classic, you can clearly see where it aligns and where Potter's story differs. Her writing is fresh and effortless, and she updates many key features from the century-old original while keeping its enchanting tone. Not every detail is neatly sewn up by the conclusion (namely the circumstance of Roo's father's death), but nothing feels incomplete either.
THE HUMMING ROOM would be a fantastic companion book for young readers to compare and contrast with THE SECRET GARDEN. But it’s also a powerful and enjoyable stand-alone title.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 28, 2012