Do you remember the walled, overgrown garden brought back to life by a boy and a girl in F. H. Burnett’s Secret Garden (1911)? The book was a favorite of my childhood, and perhaps the long, restorative story about gardening has something to do with my own attraction to shabby, abandoned patches, as if glory and possibility, like this, await in each one:
The seeds Dickon and Mary had planted grew as if fairies had tended them. Satiny poppies of all tints danced in the breeze by the score, gaily defying flowers which had lived in the garden for years and which it might be confessed seemed rather to wonder how such new people had got there. And the roses–the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sun-dial, wreathing the tree trunks and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades–they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair fresh leaves, and buds–and buds–tiny at first but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air. (247)
Lovely, isn’t it? Fresh, new, full of playful life — not unlike an uncomplicated view of the child.
And here’s the garden for our times. It is tended by the 21-year-old Edmond who has been traumatized by witnessing the slaughter of a contemporary war started in England by “The Enemy,” and it appears at the end of Meg Rosoff’s How I live now (2004):
On the warm stone walls, climbing roses were just coming into bloom and great twisted branches of honeysuckle and clematis wrestled each other as they tumbled up and over the top of the wall. Against another wall were white apple blossoms on branches cut into sharp crucifixes and forced to lie flat against the stone. Below, the huge frilled lips of giant tulips in shades of white and cream nodded in their beds. They were almost finished now, spread open too far, splayed, exposing obscene black centers…
The air was suffocating, charged, the hungry plants sucking at the earth with their ferocious appetites. You could almost watch them grow, pressing fat green tongues up through the black earth. (181)
The passage is narrated by Daisy, Edmond’s American first cousin and former lover, also 21, who returns to him after a six-year absence because of the war, which spread beyond the British island to six continents. Like the Secret Garden, this novel, which Meg Rosoff reportedly began writing in the run-up to the war in Iraq, is aimed at a young audience. Rosoff doesn’t shy away from blood, terror, or torture: a man has his face blown off, some civilians are slaughtered and most are displaced from their homes, and children roam the woods and abandoned farms, hiding and fending for themselves. Parent figures are either absent or die off quickly.
There’s nothing pastoral about the England in How I live now. Yet this dystopic novel is not without hope. In the end, Daisy joins Edmond in tending his rage-filled garden, and the reader senses that somehow subverting anger into hungry, persistent life offers a way back to what has been in short supply: peace.