Book Review and Author Interview: The Secret Garden Devotional, by Rachel Dodge

Book Recommendation by Brenda S. Cox

“Delaford is . . . a nice old fashioned place, full of comforts and conveniences; quite shut in with great garden walls that are covered with the best fruit-trees in the country; and such a mulberry tree in one corner!” –Mrs. Jennings, Sense and Sensibility (italics added)

I am no gardener, but in my daily walks around my neighbourhood I love to see flowers and trees. I watch for the first growths of greenery, for the lovely colors of fall, and even for the stark beauty of bare trees in winter.

Jane Austen likewise loved gardens, flowers, and trees. She wrote about them in her letters and in her novels. Gardens refreshed her heroines and gave them places to think, process, and grow. In Delaford we even have a garden with “great garden walls,” like the walls around the “secret garden” in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book. 

The Secret Garden Devotional by Rachel Dodge is a lovely reflection on classic literature.

Rachel Dodge (author of Praying with Jane, a devotional based on Jane Austen’s prayers) has recently published a new devotional based on a children’s classic, The Secret Garden. I re-read The Secret Garden before reading the devotional, and found it rich with beauty, growing things, and people experiencing transformation through encounters with nature. I think Austen might have loved it, though it was published almost a hundred years after she died. 

As in Rachel Dodge’s other literary devotionals (The Anne of Green Gables Devotional, The Little Women Devotional), she offers a devotional for each chapter of the book, plus a few extras. Each day begins with a Bible verse and a quote from the chapter. Then we read about some events in that chapter (you could gather enough from this summary, even without having read the book recently). Dodge explains some lesson learned from the chapter, with a similar story or passage from the Bible. Another verse follows, then a “Personal Application” section, a prayer to be personalized, and another Bible passage. I found each day full of good insights and applications.

For example, in chapter one of The Secret Garden Devotional, the child Mary loses her parents and is alone. Dodge writes,

In the midst of painful trials, it’s hard to see what possible good God could bring from it. We often feel like Mary Lennox— bewildered and alone. But take heart: Your heavenly Father knows the plans He has for you, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

Dodge draws parallels from the book of Ruth, where God brings good out of tragedy. The personal application reminds readers of God’s promises to be with us in the midst of our times of trial and loneliness. The prayer asks for His comfort and encouragement in whatever area of life we are struggling with.

I wondered how Dodge would deal with several chapters in which the children attribute their growth and healing to “magic.” She points out that Colin, the young boy in the story, is describing “an invisible power at work in the world around him . . . and it’s true.” But Dodge says it is not so much something as someone: Jesus. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul found that the people of Athens were worshiping an “Unknown God,” so he explained to them who that God was.

In The Secret Garden, we realize that the author is referring to God, not to “magic,” when the children sing the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”) together to express their thanks and joy.

Rachel Dodge shares her thoughts about The Secret Garden Devotional.

I asked Rachel to share more with you about this book.

Brenda: Rachel, you wrote a lovely book on Jane Austen’s Prayers (Praying with Jane) and I know you are very involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America. Do you see any similarities or connections between Jane Austen’s novels and The Secret Garden?

Rachel: Both Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden are written in a gothic style, though the story, tone, and message of each are quite different. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland looks forward to a frightening experience, but finds an elegant and modern building. In The Secret Garden, though, Mary Lennox finds the sort of house Catherine would have enjoyed:

 a grand big place in a gloomy way. . . The house is six hundred years old and it’s on the edge of the moor, and there’s near a hundred rooms in it, though most of them’s shut up and locked.—The Secret Garden

While Catherine conjures up possible secrets and mysteries at the Abbey, it’s Mary who finds actual secrets at Misselthwaite: A locked, hidden garden, a rambling house with over a hundred uninhabited rooms, a cousin she’s never met, a hunchback uncle, and several family secrets.

For more, please read Rachel’s article

Brenda: I think you were experiencing some major transitions in your own life, moving across the country or preparing to, as you were writing this book, is that right? How did that affect what you saw in this story of a young girl moving halfway around the world and beginning a very different life?

Rachel: Writing this devotional about Mary Lennox, just as I prepared for a major uprooting and move across the country, was quite powerful. Several chapters were particularly personal for me as I wrote about numerous unknowns, big changes, God’s provision, and life’s seasons. The fact that Mary felt so contrary when she arrived at Misselthwaite, but later found so much joy there, gave me great hope. Mary’s experience of being planted in exactly the right environment for her to blossom and bloom truly encouraged me. As I wrote those chapters, God ministered to my heart and gave me many great and precious promises about what He was planning and preparing for me and my family in our new home. I wrote those chapters with the hope that others facing change and upheaval would take courage and know that God always cares for His children, no matter where they go, and that He is always with them in the unknowns.

If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory or you don’t know the way forward, remember that God not only sees the road ahead clearly—He also designed the map!–The Secret Garden Devotional, Day 3

Brenda: When I think of particular books I love, often there are one or two vivid scenes, often with an accompanying message or theme, that immediately come to mind. With the Secret Garden, is there a particular scene and/or theme that, to you, most characterizes that book?

Rachel: When Mary follows the Robin and first finds the key and then the door to the secret garden, it always makes my heart leap. I want to be there and experience it with her! I think that moment is why so many people love reading and rereading the book. We all want a secret garden of our own! And when Mary begins to come to life there, alongside her wonderful garden, it makes us feel like we’re coming alive as well. I think the main theme is that spring always comes, even after a long or severe winter season. When we are rooted and planted in fertile soil, we begin to flourish in the most beautiful ways.

Brenda: What is one way The Secret Garden has impacted your life, spiritually? 

Rachel: This book has impacted my faith in several key ways. The entire story is about rebirth, new life, revival, and renewal. These are things only Christ can do in our lives. When we invite Him in, we are remade and reborn. This book is filled with themes related to planting and watering seeds, tending to the soil, weeding and digging, and seasonal changes. So much of it is symbolic for me of the Christian life – and many of the themes are quite biblical in nature. I really had a lot of fun finding so many beautiful connections between the novel and the Bible. As I wrote the devotional, I began to see how much our hearts are like gardens: We need to water and tend to our hearts or they run wild, dry out, and wilt. With Jesus as our gentle Master gardener, we grow and flourish in our walk with Him. We need to stay connected to the Vine in order to have everything we need to grow and bear fruit.

Brenda: What is one message you would like readers of your devotional to hold in their hearts after they read your book?

Rachel: My prayer is always that readers would come away from my devotional books with an even greater and more profoundly personal understanding of how much Jesus loves them and how intimately involved He is in every detail of their lives. In particular, I hope that everyone who reads The Secret Garden Devotional comes away with revived hope for the future, renewed patience as they wait for Spring, and revived passion for the Lord and His work! There is nothing more precious than time spent in the garden with Jesus – and it’s our privilege to extend the key of faith to others and invite them to come into the garden, too.

As a bonus at the end of the book, Rachel gives quotes from The Secret Garden about plants and flowers, and another list about foods. By the way, I read the Kindle version, which is beautifully done, like the hardback. As with Rachel’s other devotionals, lovely color illustrations of the story open many of the chapters.

The Secret Garden Devotional by Rachel Dodge is delightful; highly recommended!

At the close of The Secret Garden, there is an overarching lesson for us to remember and take away with us: gardens require tending. . . Hearts, like gardens, also require tending. –The Secret Garden Devotional, Day 28

How are you tending your own garden, the “garden” of your heart and soul?


Reviews of Rachel Dodge’s earlier books:

Praying with Jane

The Anne of Green Gables Devotional

The Little Women Devotional

Brenda S. Cox wrote Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. She, Rachel Dodge, and Vic Sanborn also write for Jane Austen’s World.


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