This review was originally posted on The Geeky Waffle, It has been reposted with permission.
I grew up loving The Secret Garden, and I cannot remember a time I didn’t feel strongly about it. So strong were my emotions that my fourth grade teacher had to call my parents and express concern at the…ahem…passion with which I condemned the parents of the heroine Mary Lennox for not loving her enough. Needless to say, it’s a story that has always been close to my heart.
While the story has been retold a few times to my recollection, mostly in film form, they never really strayed so far off the garden path as to breathe new life into the story. However, Karuna Riazi’s utterly charming A Bit of Earth not only pulls the story into the 21st century, but also clears out the weeds and debris stemming from an uncomfortable colonialist undertone that exists in the original, no matter how much I might love it. Don’t get me wrong, that aspect of the story is still there in it’s way, but in a way that rings far truer for an audience reading the story today.
The story follows Maria Latif, a young girl of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent who is orphaned after both of her parents are in an accident. After being bounced around from relative to relative, none of whom seem particularly interested in caring for the prickly, grieving child, a friend of her parents volunteers to take her in. Only problem is they live in New York, half a world away. On arrival, she is told that her new guardians cannot take her in just yet, and in the meantime she will be staying with the Claybourne family, Mr. Claybourne being another friend of her parents.
All the classic elements of The Secret Garden are still present, with an angry child in pain, processing tremendous, complex loss is sent somewhere where she is very much an outsider, in more ways than one. Unlike in the original novel, Maria is not a relative of the Claybourne’s — then again, the story makes it clear that even that connection wouldn’t improve things much — and she is also a Muslim immigrant newly living on Long Island.
She isn’t the only one in the area of course, but one of the beautiful changes to the text is the way Riazi takes the four young characters of the original novel and divides them along diasporic lines rather than class ones. Maria is the recent arrival, the most “other” when it comes to life in America. Colin was born and raised in the States, but with an English name and South Asian mother — therefore darker in appearance — he is caught between two identities and unable to feel at ease with either, even in his own home. Mimi and her brother seem to have the best of it, living with no expectations beyond the typical ones, with both cultural ties to their heritage and to the world in which they live.
In every sense the book is also about a forgotten, unwanted child healing while she helps a forgotten, unwanted garden come back to life, coming back to life herself in the process. But in mixing this well-known story with a modern, thoughtful reversal of the colonial undertone of the original, Riazi has created a new classic all her own that is not to be missed.
A Bit of Earth is testament to the fact that timeless tales can in fact be retold and retain their timelessness, if only the storyteller is willing to clear the weeds, and let the beauty and message grow and shine through on its own (yes, I promise I’m done with the garden metaphors).
A Bit of Earth releases March 14, 2023. Special thank you to HarperCollins for the advance copy for review purposes.