Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, March 26, 2012

Listen...Can You Hear?

Early this past Sunday morning, awake again at 1:30 a.m., I closed the covers of a book I could not believe was over.  The well-wrought characters placed in harrowing, unusual and mysterious circumstances bound this reader to them as only the best of stories can.  A novel inspired by The Secret Garden, The Humming Room (Feiwel and Friends), by Ellen Potter will undoubtedly bring new readers to the earlier title and have others going back for a second reading but on its own--brilliant.

Let's begin at the beginning.

There are no road signs to mark the tiny village of Limpette.  It lies between two towns that you have never heard of.  If you pass Ostrander's goat farm, you've gone too far.

We won't stay long in Limpette.  There's not much of anything here for us, except the girl. And the girl was not much of anything either, not back then.  Her name was Roo Fenshaw and she was too small for her age.

It's a good thing Roo is small for her age; giving her the ability to stay hidden in the smallest of places.  In the silent space beneath her trailer house she listens to the policemen examining the murder scene, overhears the conversation with the neighbor and discovers she is to be taken to live with an uncle she did not know she had, her father's brother.  Tragedy's heavy hand is scooping up twelve-year-old Roo.

Efficient Ms. Valentine whisks Roo away to Cough Rock Island, one of many such islands in the St. Lawrence River.  Her uncle, Emmett Fenshaw, a private, eccentric man, has purchased an abandoned children's hospital used to treat those with tuberculosis, as his home.  Within hours of her arrival the mysteries of which no one speaks, a strange humming and piercing screams, fill the air.

No nonsense but sympathetic Violet, an islander working for Roo's uncle, speaks to her of the legendary Yellow Girl, a ghost, and the Faigne, looking human but not quite, a creature of the water.  Before too long Mrs. Wixton, her newly acquired tutor attempts to suffocate Roo's new sense of belonging and freedom on the island.  Hiding from Mrs. Wixton within her secret cave by the river, she meets Jack, who eerily resembles the Faigne in appearance and in his skills on and around the waterway.

Further explorations along silent, twisting hallways, up and down staircases, through doorways rarely used and a sudden plunge along the death chute, lead Roo to discover she has a cousin, Phillip, and yes, there is a garden, a enclosed, glass-domed garden.  Lack of all life permeates every nook and cranny of the space, the very air itself.  Yet it calls to Roo; calling for her help.

So many questions without answers are centered on the garden.  Initially it draws Roo and Jack together working daily to bring forth any form of greenness despite both sensing, seeing, a vague shadowy form by a large boulder.  Within time Phillip, Violet, Ms. Valentine and eventually Emmett Fenshaw are drawn by circumstances into its confines.

Atmosphere thick with foreboding generated by her father's murder, the island's rocky isolation, the mansion whose empty rooms echo with lives lost, the sudden mysterious death of Ana, her uncle's wife and Phillip's mother, superstitions of the island's natives and the enigma of Jack drives the storyline forward.  Plot details tightly interwoven create a seamless fictional fabric patterned with timeless life-defining qualities, resilience, love, family, friendship, and loyalty.  Rich characterizations, primary and secondary, revealed by dialogue shine.

Squinting through the curtain of rain, she watched the shadowy form on the roof.  Suddenly, the wind changed directions, as though someone had summoned it.  It drove into her face so violently that it felt like an assault, forcing her to run.  Roo refused.  She turned her back to the wind, twisting her head to keep her eyes on the boy.  The river grew frantic, crashing against the island's banks.

"No, Roo.  It's not really a good place for anyone."
"You stay," Roo accused.
"I'm paid to stay.  I have three little sisters back on Donkey and a mom who's raising them on her own.  I need this job.  And I'm needed here. You're not."
Roo thought of the garden, of the freshly cleared earth, bare now but full of possibilities.
I am needed here, she thought.
"Come on," Violet said.  She walked over to Roo and took her hand, squeezing it once. "Let's go inside and get this over with.  Ms. Valentine will be so relieved to see you she might forget to tear you into bits and feed you to the gulls."

Several other points are worth mentioning.  Roo's father, however far he may have strayed, is fondly remembered; his stories' roots found among the islands.  Acting as guides Roo's black squirrel and Jack's heron, further cement their connection to nature; she to the earth and he to the water, each listening, hearing and understanding.

Ellen Potter has penned a novel so easy to visualize, a movie in your mind to replay over and over.  Beautifully, haunting The Humming Room tells of the spring that follows the winter in her characters' lives gently growing from their hearts as the plants rise from the soil in the garden.  Without a doubt, multiple copies will be needed.

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