Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review of The Locked Garden by Gloria Whelan

Whelan, Gloria. The Locked Garden. Harpercollins, 2009.

(sorry, Blogger isn't letting me upload the jacket photo due to an "internal error")

In 1900, Verna and her little sister Carlie move with their father to a small house on the grounds of an asylum for the mentally ill, where he has been hired to work as a doctor. Unfortunately for the girls, their ill-tempered Aunt Maude goes with them – their mother died two years ago, and Aunt Maude has been caring for them ever since.

Verna and Carlie both love the gorgeous grounds surrounding the asylum and soon make friends with several inmates, including young Eleanor, who has been hired to help Aunt Maude keep house. The only fly in the ointment – and it’s a big nasty one – is Aunt Maude and her nasty, critical vindictive temper. Jealous of the affection the sisters show Eleanor, she behaves more and more cruelly to her, until finally Eleanor is forced to leave both the asylum and her job and return home to her unhappy home. Verna, not content to let this injustice stand, hatches a plan to get rid of Aunt Maude and get Eleanor back.

Now that I think about it, that really doesn’t sound like much of a plot, and so it is a tribute to the writing that I became fully immersed in the small dramas of Verna’s life. Aunt Maude’s petty cruelties loom large because they are so horrible for poor Eleanor, and Verna’s outrage – and her responses - are vivid and understandable. Their father, although not often around, makes the right choices when he sees what is happening – he isn’t one of those well-meaning but oblivious adults that is found so frustratingly often in children’s literature.

The jacket art and title bring to mind The Secret Garden by Burnett, but this is deceptive – the garden plays a small part, but really this is the story of a small family’s intense dynamics. The asylum itself also plays a role, and it is fascinating to read about the innovative therapies that were being practiced, even as early as 1900, in some places.

This is one of those books that will make readers forget almost instantly that it is “historical fiction,” so caught up in the story will they be. Recommended for grades 4 – 7.

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