The Poet, the Garden, and the Election


Books have conversations in my head. These dialogues enrich and complicate the experience not only of reading, but of life, because everything is connected, everything becomes a conversation. So this week, as I read The Secret Garden to my children, and The Complete Poems of John Keats to myself, Keats and Frances Hodgson Burnett start talking to each other, and it turns out that they have things to say not only to me and to each other, but about the state of public discourse in America, and this blows my mind in the best possible way.

Yesterday morning, I completed a year-long odyssey of reading all of Keats’s poetry. When your semi-secret crush is a small, combative dead poet with misogynistic tendencies, things are bound to get complicated. I’ve long struggled with my relationships with the dead white dudes whose words inspire me at the same time that they alienate me. One of my goals for this year is to fill my reading list with marginalized voices, particularly women of color. But I’m not going to stop reading my old favorites, and I’m also never going to stop grappling with all the implications of their work and worldviews. In short, if Keats and I were Facebook friends, my relationship status would read, “it’s complicated–with John Keats.”

Last night, I continued reading The Secret Garden to Things 1 and 2. Thing 1 has been into this book from the first page. Thing 2 has had his reservations. The whole beginning in India he found vastly underwhelming. As soon as Mary started running around on the moor, however, his ears pricked up, and once the robin entered the scene, he was hooked. Thing 2 is something of a critter-whisperer. But then we got to page 88, where, in a casual, glancing reference, Mary promises to tell Martha “about the officers going to hunt tigers.” And with that, Thing 2 was out. He was done with this business. He stuck out his lower lip and lowered his eyebrows and said, “I don’t like this book.”All attempts to continue reading were derailed by protests. I offered up hope that since we don’t ever learn the outcome of the tiger hunt, perhaps the officers were unsuccessful. No dice. I suggested that perhaps the tigers ended up eating the officers. My words fell on deaf ears. I took a breath, and informed Thing 2, kindly but firmly, that I don’t like tiger-hunting either, and I understood why it bothered him, but that it was not fair to ditch this whole marvelous story because one thing in it upset him. Eventually we carried on, and by the time Dickon entered the scene, all was well. And then Burnett had to go and make another dang tiger-hunting reference. Rinse and repeat.


This all has me thinking this morning, as I digest Keats’s and Burnett’s words over tea, with pen in hand, about how deeply problematic so many of our words are. How tempting it is to shut the door of the echo chamber and hear only what affirms us, what pleases us. At some point in our nation’s recent public discourse, a bunch of people shut the book and refused to read further. This has played out at all points on the political spectrum, from liberals shocked by the election results because they couldn’t imagine that a worldview different from their own could carry the day, to conservatives who decry “political correctness” as a concession to overly-sensitive “snowflakes” yet shriek protest at anyone who dares wish them “happy holidays.” When did we shut the books that upset us?

I foresee more conversations during storytime, and more wrestling with Romantic poets. I want to tell my sons, and to model for them, that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I want them to understand that hunting cute furry animals (all animals with fur count as “cute” in Thing 2’s worldview, even maneaters) is only part of the thorniness of The Secret Garden, that the colonialism in which it’s firmly planted is predicated on racism and suppression of difference. I’m thinking, too, about the insistence of the text that English bodies belong, and can only truly thrive, on English soil (this may be a bit much for bedtime–I think we’ll focus on tigers and race)–what are the implications of this view? And I also don’t want to ruin the magic, because this is still a magical book. But I do want them to grow into thoughtful readers, and to experience the profound and quiet joy that comes from truly engaging with ideas of all kinds. I want them to appreciate that there are myriads of magical stories, but no perfect ones. That every being on this planet has a story, and none should be discounted simply because they contain something we personally find distasteful. That being said, that we should not just accept stories, but push them, ask them questions, demand that they answer back–and that the deepest magic of reading is that it allows us to talk, argue, learn, connect, across continents and centuries.