As I watched the March for Our Lives young people, in all their idealism, cut through America’s clogged debate on guns, I felt hopeful for the first time in years. Casting my mind around for some work that captures their potential breakthrough, I thought of The Secret Garden, that most luminescent of all children’s classics.
Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, former Republican and now anti-Trumper, captured the occasion as well as anyone:
By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do this?
The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.
In Secret Garden, the jaded adult is Archibald Craven, who has been in a ten-year funk over the death of his beloved wife:
[T]here was a man wandering about certain far-away beautiful places in the Norwegian fiords and the valleys and mountains of Switzerland and he was a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking. He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in the place of the dark ones. He had wandered by blue lakes and thought them; he had lain on mountain-sides with sheets of deep blue gentians blooming all about him and flower breaths filling all the air and he had thought them. A terrible sorrow had fallen upon him when he had been happy and he had let his soul fill itself with blackness and had refused obstinately to allow any rift of light to pierce through. He had forgotten and deserted his home and his duties. When he traveled about, darkness so brooded over him that the sight of him was a wrong done to other people because it was as if he poisoned the air about him with gloom…
Craven returns to his estate expecting to find the sickly son he abandoned. Just as rightwing America has countenanced the death of its children rather than stand up to a rapacious gun industry, so Craven has eschewed his adult responsibilities. Fortunately for him, the children know what is important.
Imagine that the garden to which Craven returns is the Washington Mall this past Saturday:
The ivy hung thick over the door, the key was buried under the shrubs, no human being had passed that portal for ten lonely years—and yet inside the garden there were sounds. They were the sounds of running scuffling feet seeming to chase round and round under the trees, they were strange sounds of lowered suppressed voices—exclamations and smothered joyous cries. It seemed actually like the laughter of young things, the uncontrollable laughter of children who were trying not to be heard but who in a moment or so—as their excitement mounted—would burst forth. What in heaven’s name was he dreaming of—what in heaven’s name did he hear? Was he losing his reason and thinking he heard things which were not for human ears?…
And then the moment came, the uncontrollable moment when the sounds forgot to hush themselves. The feet ran faster and faster—they were nearing the garden door—there was quick strong young breathing and a wild outbreak of laughing shows which could not be contained—and the door in the wall was flung wide open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed and, without seeing the outsider, dashed almost into his arms.
In Burnett’s novel, the children lead the way, helping the older generation rediscover their values:
Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his, side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire—Master Colin.
When it comes to guns, America’s garden has been shut up for a long time. Maybe these children are the key to unlocking it.
Further thought: The novel’s one flaw–the patriarchal sidelining of Mary and Dickon at the conclusion–was not replicated in the March for Life. A wide diversity of young people took center stage.