I can well understand why Samantha’s Secret Room is one of the best loved of Lyn Cook’s works. It contains not only a loving, hard-working family, but a number of classic elements of childhood that will grip young readers and carry them into Samantha’s world: an old family mansion, a message sent in secret to a stranger, family lore of hidden books and secret rooms, an older cousin Samantha admires, and a best friend to share it all with.
Samantha Wiggins lives in Penetanguishene, Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay. Her great-great grandfather had been a lumber baron, and built the mansion that is now mostly shuttered, but still their family home. As children in a farming family, Samantha and her two younger brothers have a number of responsibilities in the family, which of course they moan about and try to get out of; but the family work ethic is strong, and certainly modern readers could learn a thing or two about respect and commitment from the family dynamics that Cook presents.
Once again, Cook has done her research. If you check google maps, you can find exactly where Samantha’s home was, on the point looking toward Beausoliel Island, on Champlain Road. Cook has a knack, too, of weaving historical facts seamlessly into her narrative. When Samantha’s new friend, Kim, comes to visit from London, Ontario, the family show her their home, relating the colourful history of Penetanguishene in fluid, natural dialogue.
The secrecy in the novel springs from a number of sources. Samantha’s friend Colette has a Christmas tree farm, and Samantha ties a note to a Christmas tree, in lieu of the traditional message in a bottle (after all, the lake would be ice until spring, and who wants to wait?). The result is a new best friend, Kim. Samantha, as the title (misleadingly) suggests, has built herself a secret room in the old root cellar: a room that no one knows about but her, where she hides from her family and writes her diary. When her cousin Josh writes from Connecticut that he is coming to visit, he asks if they have found Samantha’s secret room, and Samantha wonders how he knew… but his secret room is not hers. Samantha’s great-grandmother, who lives in her girlhood room in the tower of the house, is also Samantha, as was her mother, born in 1833. The secret room Josh writes about belonged to one of them. Great-Gran, too, provides a bit of mystery, as she keeps asking the children to look for her “book … the one with all the flowers in it” (25). The family is convinced that no such book exists: after all, everyone has searched the house, high and low. Great-Gran is almost ninety, forgetful and a bit crotchety, and is therefore humoured by her family.
With Christmas, Kim’s visit, Winterama, and a family reunion in the summer to celebrate Great-Gran’s ninetieth birthday, life in the Wiggins household moves from one small excitement to the next. Calves are born in a blizzard; the family dog runs away to have her pups; Samantha makes friends with their reclusive neighbour… and through it all Great-Gran demands that Samantha reads the Bible to her, and that they find her book. Despite her demands, it is obvious to readers (if not to Samantha) that Samantha is Great-Gran’s favourite; she knows—as Samantha does not—that Samantha’s courage and feisty spirit has been passed down through the female line. The theme of connection and continuity is accentuated in other relationships, too. Kim’s father is an antique salesman, and Josh is a budding archeologist: together they provide a sense of the importance of history—in a broader sense—that reinforces the novel’s message of the importance of family and tradition. Overall, the story creates a powerful feeling of peace, of belonging, even in the midst of changing circumstances and relationships. In the final scene, when the mysteries have been solved, Kim has returned to London, and Josh has left to pursue his career, Samantha climbs the stairs to her Great-Gran’s room and begins, again, to read to her the Twenty-Third Psalm…