It was 10:40 on a school night, the end of the last shift of the day, which had seemed more difficult than usual: homework and bath time had been laborious and fraught with resistance, bedtime was now forty five minutes late.
And so I cannot tell you why I and my sons, Ariel, 11 and Ben, nine, were all in Ben's bed when I opened The Secret Garden and began reading aloud.
One of my early fantasies of motherhood had been to share this childhood favorite with my own children. But now it was 2000 and I had two boys who were competent though not avid readers, well entrenched in the popular cultures of television and computers. They are boys who spend most of their days playing sports or running around with other boys. How would they relate to this British girl living in the 1800's in India?
I began, "When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor everyone said she was the most disagreeable looking child ever seen..."
"Is this going to be a sad story?" Ben asked.
"Well sad.... and happy," I answered and read on.
I finished the chapter in about seven minutes, with a few stops for explanations. I looked up in amazement to see the boys' faces awash with sadness.
"You said it wouldn't be sad," Ariel said. "Now you have to keep reading. We can't go to sleep yet."
WHAT MAKES A CLASSIC A CLASSIC?
Seven minutes. In seven minutes my sons had been completely drawn in. This, I thought, is what makes a classic a classic - its ability to endure over time and across cultures. In this case, it seemed extraordinary considering the effort it took my children to access the story. There were many words they didn't know, either because it was written in British English, or because they are bi-lingual and have an impoverished vocabulary, or because the book used terms related to the culture of that place and period.
Seven minutes. Suspense and drama had ensnared them. Poor little rich Mistress Mary been forgotten in the flurry of a cholera epidemic, and had awoken to discover that everyone in the household, including her parents, were dead.
Seven minutes. How long would it take, I wondered, to achieve that same depth of involvement in a television show or a movie? Forty-five minutes, I conjectured, might bring you close to tears.
A SENSE OF MAGIC
At the same time, this sense of magic seemed to come not just from the story itself, but the fact that it was read aloud. I thought about the fact that reading aloud usually stops when children are old enough to read to themselves. Yet thinking back on my own childhood, my sister read to me long after I knew how to read.
Among others she read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Little Men in their voluminous entirety. Later, when I got married, I felt compelled to read aloud some of my favorite childhood books to my husband, among them: The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
Reading aloud provides a unique space, in which the one-on-one intimate relationship between narrator and reader may be shared in a group. The Secret Garden led to many discussions among the boys and me along the way. Why were the British in India? What was it like to travel then? How did people treat children differently then than they do today? What is a moor? What was the difference between Indian servants and British servants?
And The Secret Garden offers genuine pathos. Thus far it is a dismal tale of an orphan who travels from India to live with her strange uncle, where she has been given strict orders to bother no one and to confine herself to two of the hundred rooms in the dreary mansion. We scorn spoiled Mary and at the same time we feel dread, fear and anguish together with her.
We've only gotten to page 30 with all the background discussions. And there is a good seventy pages till Mistress Mary peeks over the wall to her wondrous discovery. But I feel as if my sons and I have been given a rare gift: A rambling foray into our own secluded sanctum.