A BIT OF EARTH by Karuna Riazi – Review by Bridget Hodder
People change. So do stories.
Sometimes, when a story holds a certain special magic, woven by compelling universal emotions, it endures through the years, decades and centuries. As it is told and retold, it takes on characteristics of the personalities and cultures who tell it. In the case of Cinderella, for example, she started out far back in the mists of Chinese history wearing shoes lined with fur–which became silk slippers in Europe, then glass slippers…and in contemporary times, a robotic foot. In the same way that Cinderella’s footwear has changed to reflect the lives of the people who love her, the fairy tale has also changed over the centuries to align more closely with spiritual and moral changes in society. Thus in new versions, Cinderella may be granted more agency in her life choices, and her beauty may no longer be her most important characteristic.
With the release of Karuna Riazi’s A BIT OF EARTH, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic work of middle grade fiction, The Secret Garden, has become one such evolving folktale.
The Secret Garden came originally from the pen of a woman born in the 1800’s who bucked tradition and rose to unparalleled literary prominence, in the days when women could not vote or own their own property. The Secret Garden takes place partly in British imperialized India, and partly in Victorian England. The viciously unlikeable protagonist of Burnett’s tale, Mary Lennox, was bred to be racist and elitist–a product of deeply sick British colonial culture. Burnett consciously used Mary Lennox’s behavior to demonstrate some of the more minor ways in which the British oppressed and enslaved the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Mary’s “ugly” exterior was a metaphor for how the colonizers themselves, whose reckless privilege in the book was enabled by the sweat and tears of millions, became ugly inside–in need of spiritual transformation. This transformation is what the “secret garden” Mary discovers in the original story helps to accomplish: a reawakening of one’s own humanity, rooted in love and nurtured by human connection that crosses the boundaries built by hate.
Karuna Riazi takes these insightful roots and branches of a timeless story, prunes away the dead wood, and makes the talebloom again for a new generation.
In a narrative that is at once deeply metaphorical and deeply personal, A BIT OF EARTH follows the present-day journey of orphaned Maria Latif as she is shuffled from one new “home” to another, one rejection to another, one misunderstanding to another. So accustomed is Maria to being misunderstood, that she has adjusted her personality to provoke instant rejection from the people she meets, to lessen the anxiety of waiting for the inevitable. Without parents, relying on the kindness of strangers, this defensive strategy has resulted in Maria’s bravery and resilience being labeled as “prickly” and “hostile.” Due in part to how difficult they consider Maria to be, her relatives in Pakistan decide it would be best to turn Maria over to a culturally patronizing charitable group in America.
This is how Maria comes to live in a crumbling old-money Long Island ancestral pile that’s inhabited by people who are difficult and prickly themselves. Yet she begins to put down roots in this new, unfriendly place when she discovers a locked garden, which she decides to cultivate. The slow growth of the garden is beautifully paralleled by the gradual opening of Maria’s spirit to friendship and love. Unexpectedly, her own healing leads to the healing of the other damaged souls around her. Slowly, slowly, Maria finds joy.
Yet the author does not give in to the harmful narrative that young people, and girls in particular, need to be sunshiny people-pleasers to be worthy of respect and love. In fact, both Maria and Colin–the sullen, mysterious boy who lives in thehouse where Maria ends up–have good reasons for protecting their hearts from an unsafe world they cannot trust. We come to realize that Maria is not only defensive due to her circumstances, but in fact she is a naturally assertive person. The author demonstrates subtly that Maria’s refusal to be submissive and unquestioning is not a flaw; rather, it’s a strength that can inspire others. By the end of A BIT OF EARTH, readers see how the characters’ own choices–helped along by a tiny touch of magic–bear remarkable, self-affirming fruit.
Maria Latif is a fascinating character in her own right. Riazi’s masterstroke is the subversion of the original character of Mary Lennox, a British Colonial character who abused her servants and nanny in India, by turning her into a fully fleshed character with roots in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Riazi’s own lived experience informs the character in ways that someone without her cultural and religious background could never do. Page after page, Riazi’s skill and cultural knowledge bring the story to life in surprising, immersive ways– sights, scents, tastes, colors, actions, all blend into an enchanting, unique narrative flow that will feel reassuringly familiar to some readers, and spark delighted curiosity in others.
Lastly, fans of The Secret Garden might be asking themselves whether the writing in A BIT OF EARTH can stand up in comparison to the power of the original.
Interspersed with beautifully crafted prose, A BIT OF EARTH grants us access to Maria’s innermost thoughts and feelings with a few moving poems. They offer words and phrases that readers will want to read over lovingly, again and again, savoring the feel of the syllables in the mouth or the mind, finding new meanings each time. There can’t be a better way of ending this review than by quoting from one of these pieces:
Blooming is quite ugly.
Shocking, after all this expectation,
to see green skin split
yielding to pulpy, yellow mess.
But all things grow into beauty.
I highly recommend that you buy and read this beautiful bloom of a book.
**(Book Buyers Note: Excellent choice for school, library and home; story ideal for all ages, readership from ages 8 and up.Consider for text-to-text and text-to-film core curricular connection requirements; applicable Heritage months, and Muslim celebrations.)
Bridget Hodder is a former special education teacher and autism therapist. She is also the author of THE RAT PRINCE from Macmillan/FSG, co-author with Fawzia Gilani of THE BUTTON BOX from Lerner Books/Kar-Ben, and co-author of the picture book, THE PROMISE, coming in September 2023.