TCK and Childhood Illness in ‘The Secret Garden’ {Book Club}

After both of her parents died in a cholera outbreak in India Mary was going to her uncle’s house in England.

 “But you are going to be sent home,” Basil said to her, “at the end of the week. And we’re glad of it.”

“I’m glad of it, too,” answered Mary. “Where’s home?”

Doesn’t she sound like a TCK? Confident– I’m glad of it too! – yet not clear where home is. In her case, Mary seems even more rootless than the average TCK, however, because of the lack of attachment and involvement of her parents.

Today we begin our discussion of The Secret Garden by focusing on key aspects of two of the primary characters – Mary as a TCK and Colin as he faces a childhood illness.

Mary had been closest (as much as one can use the term “close”) to her Ayah. And in her case, the power distance between Mary, a child, and her Ayah was backwards. Mary held all the cards, even “slapping her Ayah in the face when she was angry.” When Mary arrived in England, Martha was the house servant who attended her.  You can guess how well her attitude went over with English servants =)!

“Mary listened to Martha with a grave, puzzled expression. The native servants she had been used to in India were no in the least like this. They were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals… Indian servants were commanded to do things, not asked.”


“Why doesn’t tha’ put on tha’ own shoes?” she said when Mary quietly held out her foot.

“My Ayah did it,” answered Mary, staring. “It was the custom.”

She said that very often – “It was the custom.” The native servants were always saying it. If one told them to do a thing their ancestors had not done for a thousand years they gazed at one mildly and said, “It’s not the custom” and one knew that was the end of the matter.”


“But, in fact, he (Ben, an elderly gardener) did not object to her as strongly as he had at first. Perhaps he was secretly rather flattered by her evident desire for his elderly company. Then, also, she was more civil than she has been. He did not know that when she first saw him she spoke to him as she would have spoken to a native, and had not known that a cross, sturdy old Yorkshire man was not accustomed to salaam to his masters, and be merely commanded by them to do things.”


True, it was a different era with different cultural expectations between foreigners and locals AND, I hope(!) we come to the lands we come with a different attitude than Mary, her parents, and ex-pats in their roles. Yet, Mary’s behavior makes me so uncomfortable I’m quick to look for ways the TCK’s I know are NOT like her. But if I’m honest, similarities exist. In what ways do you see Mary as a TCK? Have you seen your kids interact with people when you go “back home” in ways that are appropriate in your context but may not be so appropriate in your passport country?

Let’s also discuss Colin and the themes of childhood illness, both the impact on the individual and the family. Do any of you have chronically ill children or siblings when you were growing up? For Colin’s dad, having a child who was ill and reminded him of his dead wife, he responded by pulling back. His relationship with Colin was almost non-existent.  Colin was so spoiled, I found myself like the servants, not wanting to be around him! He needed (watch out for a really obvious observation) connection and boundaries.

In my family, my grandpa’s younger sister had polio and it shrunk her right arm and leg a bit. For that time period, it was a family tragedy and much money and effort were invested to “make her normal.” I remember seeing a class picture of her where she had colored over her arm with pen.

It confused me as a child. My great-aunt was profoundly influenced by the message she wasn’t normal and it was until in her 80’s when she fell and broke a hip and had to live in a nursing home that she socially blossomed. For my great-aunt, it ended up being life long and, for the most part, negative and isolating.

Illness show up in most of our family histories and I’ll look forward to your stories in the comments.

My compassion for Colin grew as I saw the scared, abandoned boy he was.

If you’ve read this book before, how does the TCK lens and childhood illness change things?  What else have you been thinking about as you start this book? See you in the comments!


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Photo Credit: Nhoj Leunamme == Jhon Emmanuel via Compfight cc


  1. Beth June 2, 2014

    Mary’s question “Where’s home?” is the classic TCK question … or question asked of TCKs that can bring a sense of dread. One thing we have started doing as a family is to refer to the places we visit by their country names (my husband and I are from two different countries), talking about them as the places we are visiting, going for a holiday, where this-or-that-person lives, etc. We don’t refer to these places as “home” to our children. That seems a little confusing to them. They were born overseas and so the only “home” they know is our home in this foreign land. It feels so complex sometimes, especially as we the adults feel less and less like those places are “home” anymore.

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      I know, right?! I think that why it FINALLY hit me “she’s a TCK!” How many years did I miss it?

  2. Sarah June 3, 2014

    I love this book!  I read it multiple times as a kid, and again a couple of times as an adult.  I remember feeling interested in Mary’s background as a child who had grown up in India, but it does take on new meaning now to think of her as a TCK when I’m a mom of TCKs.  Thanks for this insight.  It does help you have more sympathy for her!  I know our kids are often confused by things being “not the custom” when we visit the States.  Home for them is here in Costa Rica, and the States in the foreign place.  Oh, and, by the way, Amy, I’ve been reading this blog for a while and figured out that I know you, or at least know of you.  I’m from Lawrence, KS and Grace EPC is our home church.  Small world!

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      The TCK insight helped me too. I remember thinking of Mary as mostly just a selfish spoiled little brat (I did have some sympathy since her parents had died, but still I didn’t think highly of Mary at the beginning). Woot woot on connections! Yes, I’m that Amy. The one who thinks Lawrence, KS is the best place on earth and am thankful I was able to live there for 9 years. I was the speaker at the women’s retreat this spring … love that church! Rock Chalk and all that 🙂

  3. Elizabeth June 3, 2014

    Brilliant! When I first heard you were going to read the “Secret Garden” (which I discovered in college, along with Francis Hodgson Burnett’s other delightful books), I confess I didn’t understand why you were reading a children’s book. Now I get it! A TCK. Duh!! How did I not get that before?? I caught it in Chummy, the initially awkward new nurse-midwife in Call the Midwife, but not here. And they were both in India. Silly 🙂 And of course, so was Sara Crewe in “A Little Princess.” Did the author have experience in cross cultural childhood, or was she simply fascinated with it, as a product of the Victorian times?? I never thought to look it up before.

    But this makes so much sense, TCKs back then had an even harder time than now, especially if they had only lived in their host country. Even today, as we welcomed a brand new intern, who is herself a TCK, but from a developed place where there are no house helpers like here in Cambodia, I was acutely aware that it might be strange to her that I don’t do all my own cleaning, or cook all my own meals. So that whole “having servants thing,” it’s normal for us, but it’s strange for a lot of people. Wonder how that will affect my own kids??

    And funny thing, we were discussing (she a M kid, and me a military kid, and my husband and I raising 4 TCKs of our own) how there didn’t used to be any resources for reentry. None, back when I did it in the early 90’s, and precious few when she did it in the early 2000’s. It was just starting to be a thing back then, she said. Now there are so many more resources. However, she said just having the resources or vocabulary doesn’t make it any easier, you just know what’s happening. You still have to push through reentry, and that’s tough.

    All right, I’ll stop talking now 🙂

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      Talk away 🙂 … It is interesting to think of life “back then” as a TCK and now (even as you said, just the last decade or so). And then, for Mary, throw in trauma, returning alone, and her disagreeable personality. Triple whammy! I agree that resources are making such a difference these days (and a growing awareness), but as you also astutely pointed out, resources can only go so far. Certain parts of life are just HARD!

  4. Kimberly Todd June 3, 2014

    I forgot about the brief appearance of the character Basil when Mary was transitioning from India to Misselthwaite. That means this book could be the first time that I encountered and loved the name that we gave to our youngest son. My Basil lit up when we got to that part until Basil was unkind to Mary, but he thought she deserved it.

    We struggle with chronic asthma in both our boys. It’s inherited. My dad remembers lying on the ground by the screen door gasping for air as a boy, and that was back when “the grass was still green and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean.” I’m certain our dry dusty climate and pollution has intensified the struggle for the boys here. In good seasons the most we have to do is take a puff on an inhaler in the evenings, but there have been seasons of respiratory illness when it feels like we’re really doing nothing but treating acute breathing issues and the boys exhaust themselves just trying to breathe. When we’re fighting for breath we turn inwards and it’s all-consuming but we’re not isolated from one another because of it. If anything it feeds our connection, but I’d certainly rather nurture that connection in other ways.

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      I bet Basil did light up! It’s fun to hear your name in a story :)!  And Mary was a bit of a turkey in her reply.

      “But I’d certainly rather nurture that connection in other ways.” Amen to that! The “all consuming” part is what I think can be so draining! (that and concern). I know in my great-aunt’s case, there was such shame and she definitely received the message she wasn’t good enough and was a burden to the family. So sad, because, really it was “minor” compared to other childhood illness.

  5. Jana June 3, 2014

    I am so excited to reread one of my favorite childhood books for the umpteenth time & hear what everyone thinks about the correlation between the book and TCKs!

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      me too! Have you seen the Broadway musical? I love listening to the songs from it on Pandora 🙂 … I really am a Secret Garden nerd!

  6. Catherine June 3, 2014

    Where’s home? It seems to me for most of us “home” is less of a geographical place, and more of a place where we feel loved, known and accepted. Even many who never leave their own country don’t ever return to their growing-up place, but make new places in which to feel loved and “at home”. For my very young TCKs, home is where ever Mummy and Daddy are, and if Grandma and Grandpa are there too its a bonus. Perhaps its as we become older we become more attached to the notion of home as a single place. The privilege (and challenge) of our kids is that they are loved in two (or more) places. They have more than one home. The tragedy of Mary is that she was loved nowhere and had no home. It made me sad that even at the end of the book she was still not really “home”. Whilst Colin found his father, Mary still seemed to be alone in the world. Possibly issues of learning different customs and ways of doing things are relatively simple compared to developing a sense of home and true belonging in a different place.

    1. Amy Young June 3, 2014

      Ah, interesting thought Catherine on Mary and belonging. At the beginning she definitely wasn’t loved or wanted (and seemed to be more of a “bother” to those around her.). I guess I thought at the end she had found a home with Colin and his father. But that’s the beauty of literature, it’s open to interpretation! She was certainly drawn to Martha and Dickon and what they had in their family … I do wonder what happened to Mary as she grew up.

  7. Marilyn June 3, 2014

    Oh so good – like others I never equated Mary as a TCK and I love that about her. I too connected Chummy as a TCK and of course there is Lindsey Lohan’s character in Mean Girls. Both this book and the Little Princess were favorites of mine. I often felt like Mary was my alterego – she acted the way I felt. Contrary. And I could be contrary both sides of the globe. There were no resources at all, there wasn’t even a name for us until Dave Pollock came along and I will be forever grateful. But even now, when I get in discussions with expats I realize I sit in a different place coming from a TCK background. Even with expats it can be lonely, particularly when you get in discussions on ‘home’. As far as home – I’ve attached a picture with my quote on home 🙂 Thanks for a great discussion Amy!

    1. Amy Young June 4, 2014

      Marilyn so glad to have you chime in! Yippee! Ah, yes, the loneliness (more on that next week!) and the tension we are called to live with — acknowledge we are lonely AND actively look for points of connection with those around us. I appreciate how much Mary used the word “lonely” in this book!

  8. Marilyn June 3, 2014

    Oh so so sorry! I didnt’ know the picture would look so large!

    1. Amy Young June 4, 2014

      The pic is awesome because it’s large enough for me to see 🙂

  9. Brittany June 6, 2014

    This is my first time reading this book, but I am familiar with the story (through movie and radio theater).  But I must say, I do not remember ANYTHING about the story before Mary meets Colin.  So the first several chapters felt completely new to me and it was very interested focusing in on Mary’s TCK-ness.  It certainly caused me to pray a lot this week over my children that they would be much better adjusted/flexible as they move in and out of cultures than Mary!

    I’m enjoying the discussion about other TCKs in fictional media.  🙂

  10. Denise June 6, 2014

    I too had missed the TCK thing with Mary. I see contrary attitudes with some of my children and it is hard to accept. I want them to be “nice” to our local friends and “nice” to our friends in the states. Watching Mary become nicer when she finds something to throw her heart into helps me think I need to find a special something for my child to delight in too.

    I am listening to the book on audible and enjoying this new way to read the book.

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