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Roo Fanshaw is a runty thief, good at hiding with her hoard of trinkets in tight spaces where big people can’t come after her. Before we have time to find out what made her this way, we see her taken from the scene of her drug-dealer father’s murder (which she witnessed) and passed along to a series of foster families, where she is even less loved and cared for than before. At last, she comes in for a landing at the remote home of her uncle—a reclusive man who was estranged from her father, his brother. Whether this is finally to be her home, however, will depend on how well she can adapt to a gloomy old house that used to be a sanitarium for children dying of tuberculosis, on an island in the Saint Lawrence River accessible only by boat, among servants who worry more about keeping the girl out of her uncle’s way than about how she is doing. And yet the island stirs a new life in this closed-up, hurt girl.
Chiefly, what brings Roo back to life is the mystery, or rather the mysteries, of Cough Rock. There is the mystery about the beautiful wild boy whom the locals call the Faigne, who paddles alone among the rocks and isles, making friends with the wildlife and living without adult supervision. Then there is the mystery of the West Wing, where Roo is not allowed to go, and the humming sound which sometimes sounds like screaming and crying, though no one is meant to live there. And finally, there is the secret passage that leads Roo to an indoor tropical rain forest that has been hidden from the world.
As Roo and the Faigne (actually a flesh-and-blood boy named Jack) work to bring this dead garden back to life, life creeps back into Roo as well. And not only into her, but also into a certain spoiled, bedridden, perhaps mentally ill child named Phillip, who has been wearing himself out (and everyone around him) with grief since his mother died. Of all people, it is Roo who seems to have the magic touch to make Phillip open up to life again, along with his mother’s little piece of jungle… if only his stern father will allow it.
When I reviewed Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden years ago, I noted that while it’s a fine book, its overall effectiveness is hurt by a serious structural flaw. In this retelling of the same story, updated from 19th-century India and England to 21st-century Florida and New York, I hoped to see the author of The Kneebone Boy and the Olivia Kidney books correct that flaw. Instead, I was even more disappointed. This book could have gone on twice as long, working out its rich dramatic conflict; instead, after reaching an exquisite climax, it resolves everything too abruptly and too easily. I was excited to ride along where this book seemed to be carrying me, but its sudden and unfulfilling ending yanked the rug from under my feet. And so, for perhaps only the second time in my book-boosting career, I call “do-over.” I hope the author will consider my suggestion that she flesh out the conflict and its resolution in an expanded Second Edition.