Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tom's Midnight Garden

Philippa Pearce published this delightful award-winning English fantasy novel in 1958, and it is a must for any child’s bookshelf. It seems like the novel isn't nearly as well known in America.

Tom’s brother is stricken with the measles, so Tom must spend his summer holidays in a “poky old flat” with his childless aunt and uncle. The flat is a small part of what was once a grand house, but all that remains of its former stateliness is the grandfather clock in the front hall; out the back door are nothing but trash bins and concrete driveways. When the clock strikes thirteen on Tom’s first night there, he comes downstairs to investigate, and when he opens the back door he finds a glorious garden with plenty of opportunities for play (Tom is under quarantine, so his indoor daytime existence is stultifying). He forms a lasting bond of friendship with a girl he meets in the garden—the only one of the house and garden’s inhabitants who can see him. In rereading this novel I thought more than once of The Time Traveler’s Wife:
This was Hatty, exactly the Hatty he knew already, and yet quite a different Hatty, because she was—yes, that was it—a younger Hatty: a very young, forlorn little Hatty whose father and mother had only just died and whose home was, therefore, gone…

He never saw the little Hatty again. He saw the other, older Hatty, as usual, on his next visit to the garden. Neither then nor ever after did he tease her with questions about her parents. When, sometimes, Hatty remembered to stand upon her dignity and act again the old romance of her being a royal exile and prisoner, he did not contradict her.
Months and even years go by between Hatty’s seeing Tom in the garden, though he goes there and plays with her every night. And when he gets back to his room in his aunt and uncle’s flat after hours of playing in the garden with Hatty, the clock reads just a few minutes past midnight.

I first read Tom’s Midnight Garden when I was nine or ten years old, and because it was a school copy I couldn’t just pull it off the shelf years later when I was wondering about the title and author of that great children’s novel I’d read back in Challenge Literature (which was this special once-a-week class for kids with high scores on the standardized tests, or however else they measured our potential. There were four Challenge classes: Math, Literature, Art, and Music. It sounds nerdy, but the Challenge classes were my favorite part of elementary school.) Ailbhe recently mentioned Tom’s Midnight Garden over dinner, and I got really excited because I knew it was the same book I’d been searching for on the internet. I got an old library copy via Amazon Marketplace and I’ve enjoyed it as much as I did when I was nine. Even got a bit teary at the end.

Hooray for secondhand books! I like the idea of a book arriving with a history already. This paperback copy is stamped MERRICK LIBRARY, and it has that wonderful musty smell of old paper. On the back cover I see:
DATE DUE:
SEP 12 1981
JAN 27 1982
And at the bottom:
2¢ PER DAY OVERDUE FINES.
OVERDUE NOTICES WILL NOT BE SENT ON THIS PAPERBACK.
I wonder if the second person who took it out never returned it.

1 comment:

Kate said...

What is it with you and crying over books?! teehee