Have you read “The Secret Garden” lately? It has the most compelling opening I’ve read in a long time. Have you read “The Summer of the Bear?” It has the most exciting mid-section. I am so excited to read it now, but it took me about 1/3 of the book before I finally got interested.
The reason I picked up “The Summer of the Bear” was because of a feature I saw on the author, Bella Pollen, in Vogue magazine. It was written by the author about her home in the English country. The descriptions and pictures were swoon-worthy. I then read that Bella Pollen’s book was set in Scotland and that was almost all I needed to know. Like “The Secret Garden” both books had magical things that happen, in fact we get inside a robin’s mind in SG and a bear’s mind in SB, and they both have disagreeable children that find their way. That and the positive reviews I saw, are what kept me reading past the beginning. I didn’t find that I liked the characters right away. I didn’t like the way I had to keep going back in time to understand how the father died. And I wasn’t attracted to the idea of the Cold War as a topic. But I kept reading because I believed that there would be a pay off because the magazines said this was a good novel.
So I forced myself. And somehow it got good, and then it got very good, because I had begun to care about the characters much much more. I’m getting near the end now, and may need to do another post once I’m done. But without the hype of the magazine, I would have quit reading it much earlier.
I came to pick up “The Secret Garden” completely randomly as I was searching for a book to read to my son at night. We had already gone through the “Amulet” series and all of the “Wimpy Kid” books. I picked up my old copy of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett and had my socks blown off. I read two lines. Two lines and was instantly compelled to read more.
After two pages I was majorly hooked. Of course, I remembered that I liked the story from before, but I had no idea how compelling this book was from the first page. If you have it, go grab it and crack it open. If it’s not handy, I’ll tell you exactly what attracted me.
Here is the first line. “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too.”
First of all, we know she is probably alone, and she is going to live somewhere new. And something is wrong if she is so disagreeable.
“She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.”
Then we learn that her mother cared only to go to parties.
On the last line of the first page, I read this, “She had not wanted a little girl at all, and when Mary was born she handed her over to the care of an Ayah….”
Then the author takes us into the story. “One frightfully hot morning, when she was about nine years old, she awakened feeling very cross…..”
By the middle of the second page, we learn that the servant that has raised her is missing, by the end of the third page, we overhear that her mother is worried about Cholera in the town. Seconds later, we learn that Mary’s servant has died from sickness. Cholera is in their home.
By the end of the first chapter, page 7, Mary wakes up from a long sleep to find herself abandoned in the compound where she lives. All the servants have left and no-one has thought about the little girl. Mary’s parents are dead and she is found by an officer who is going through the empty rooms.
What is going to happen to poor Mary? Who is going to care for her? The questions that drive the reader are strong and abundant. As a reader, I am worried for her, sad for her, and cannot wait to see what will happen when she gets to her uncle’s place in England. I care what is going to happen to her and I anticipate that it will be fun to find out. Even the title, “The Secret Garden,” promises a good read. So swiftly has Frances Hodgson Burnett captured me as a reader.
And she doesn’t stop with the questions and worries either. Pretty soon, Mary discovers that there is a weird sound she hears but no-one will explain. Her uncle doesn’t see anyone and the house (on the edge of a moor, no less) has a hundred rooms but she is not to poke into any of them.
Maybe not every first chapter can be as tightly wound as this, but when there is no tension at all in the beginning, I normally shrug and give up. This seems to be what modern agents are looking for when they say they want “compelling” on every page. I’ll bet that this book follows many of the classic plotting strategies. I’m hoping that my re-reading will give me lots of ideas. I don’t want to go back to my first chapter yet but I do want to see if I can study how Ms. Burnett does it and increase the tension in my opening chapters. Then I’ll switch over to Ms. Pollen and see how to make the middle and end of my book crackle with excitement.
Mainly, I’m just happy to have found such great teaching texts in my collection. I suspect that after I re-read them I’m going to find that they have many similar elements. I know I’ll be keeping them both around. After all, I’ve had “The Secret Garden” for a long time now.