Let’s say we have a conversation about classic children’s literature. And when I say classic, what I really mean is old/classic (books over 120 years young!). The first ones that pop into my head are Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I have read both of these novels multiple times, but the latter is one that has aged well as I have gone from child to adult. Its story and characterization never grow…old.
Ellen Potter’s The Humming Room is a retelling of Burnett’s masterpiece, and I was both excited and apprehensive about reading it – but I needn’t have been. Why? It’s really lovely.
Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life.
As it turns out, Roo has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river?
Inspired by The Secret Garden, this tale full of unusual characters and mysterious secrets is a story that only Ellen Potter could write.
The Humming Room is Roo’s story. When we meet her, she is hiding, she has seen it all, and she knows that there isn’t a happy ending. But even though her situation is tragic, there’s a sliver of hope: Roo has a rich uncle, and a chance for a fresh start. How she takes to her new situation will determine who she becomes, and whether she allows the world and her circumstances to change her for the better.
Potter’s character study of Roo is PERFECT. Her circumstances encourage the reader’s sympathy, even as she is sullen, solitary, and unhappy. Her inquisitive nature saves her, in a sense, and that theme is a major one throughout the book. Also stellar: the descriptions and history of Cough Rock. I was completely enchanted and mesmerized by the island world.
The plot, if you have read The Secret Garden, is no surprise. What is interesting is the way Potter reinvented it by creating a completely unique place (Cough Rock, as mentioned). She also added substantial charm to the story with the particular folklore and superstition of the St. Lawrence islands.
The Humming Room is a delightful and dear meditation on an old story, and a tale set in a new world that I long to inhabit. My only complaint is that it felt too short, and rushed at the end. I wanted more time on Cough Rock with Roo, Jack and Sir.
Recommended for: fans of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, anyone looking for a beautifully-written middle grade book with a secret at its heart, and those who have never forgotten the wonder of first discovery – of a good book, of nature, and of friendship.