I wonder if you have ever thought about the homes portrayed in children’s stories? This thought came to me while watching the recently released film version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”
Amid the warm and rich evocation of the Marches, a family of young women finding themselves and their future paths against the backdrop of America’s civil war, there was another star of the film—the March home itself.
Going back to the book this is even more evident. A picture is painted of a home created and tended by a remarkable wife and mother. “Marmee” or Mrs. March is shown managing the demands of four young daughters, one of whom is very ill, a household where money is tight, and in the absence of a much-loved husband and father. Not only does Mrs. March manage this, she also creates an oasis of love and care in her humbler home that the rich young neighbor Laurie needs but does not find in his own cold, marble halls. On the other side, Marmee finds time and precious goods to share with those in even poorer circumstances. The Little Women of the title have this priceless treasure to guide them—an ordinary yet extraordinary mother and the wonderful home she has both modeled and made.
Other stories echo this creating of a home from few materials but with great love and faith. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of pioneer life in the Little House on the Prairie series also emphasizes the importance of the relationships and wider cooperation needed to make a place of comfort and safety in a challenging world.
Many stories for children, though, play upon the theme of unhappy homes and lost relationships. There are good literary reasons for this; it is hard to have a daring adventure with your concerned mother in tow. These kinds of stories allow children to discover for themselves places to call home.
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a very good example of this. Mary Lennox, a wealthy young girl ignored by her parents while they were alive, moves from India after their deaths to live with an equally distant and cold uncle in a rambling house in Yorkshire. One secret held by this home is Mary’s sickly cousin Colin, living apart from his father, Mary’s uncle, who is still mourning the death of his young wife. Another secret is the healing power of nature that the new friends Mary and Colin find in the closed-up garden that they bring back to life, and ultimately draws the bereaved father home to a restored relationship with his young son.
There is a further secret though and a deep one at that. For along with Mary and Colin in the garden is Dickon. Dickon is the brother of Martha, a servant at the house. Their home is described as one of great love and bustling life despite very poor means. It is their mother who talks to Mary’s uncle about the needs of children and whose guidance in the end he trusts.
The secret of home might be deep but it is also simple. It is the place of love and trust and care. It is no surprise that so many happy endings in children’s stories are the finding of such a place for themselves.