Wednesday, October 14, 2015

October Book Review Club: THE NIGHT GARDENER

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@Barrie Summy

I just spent a fun and funny week touring Oklahoma and Arkansas with Book Review Club members Barrie Summy, Jody Feldman, and Stacy Nyikos. And, boy, was it a hoot! (Pix are here.) 
Now I'm home, the leaves are turning, and Halloween's around the corner. Here's a book to scare you silly.

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By Jonathan Auxier
Amulet Books, 2014

First sign of a stellar middle-grade novel: You find yourself wanting to reach in and give the main character a good shake. “Wise up!” you whisper, hoping she hears.

I’m looking at you, Molly.

In Jonathan Auxier’s amazing THE NIGHT GARDENER, red-haired Irish waif Molly and her younger brother Kit have lost their parents at sea, stolen a fish cart and a horse called Gallileo, and set off across cold, wet rural England seeking employment. Molly is fourteen, but has lied about her age to get a referral to the Windsor household.

We learn on page one that the Windsors live in a place called “the sour woods,” and that everyone has been telling the waifs that they’re “riding to their deaths.” We feel this might be ominous.  
But Auxier instantly establishes Molly as A Girl Who Handles Things. Her younger brother is sick and they’re both starving. Despite the elaborate kidnapping tale Molly tells Kit, their parents are almost certainly dead. They need this job to survive, and Molly’s more than a match for any evil influence.

Or so we think.

The Windsor mansion proves to be a sagging wreck covered in black moss, with a giant, ill-favored tree growing right into its walls. The denizens—Constance, Bertrand, and their children Penny and Alistair—have dull, dark hair, pale skin, and dead-soul eyes. Constance has to be strong-armed into hiring Molly and Kit—“This house is no place for you,” she says—and in the end she insists that Kit, at least, will sleep in the stable rather than the house. Is she being snooty, or does she have their best interests at heart?

Well, let’s see. There’s an ominous locked door at the top of the stairs which proves to have one of the tree’s knots imbedded in the wall. Every morning, muddy footprints and dead leaves cover the house—Molly wakes from a nightmare to find them in her room.

The nightmares plague her every night. If she wakes up, she hears the moans of the house’s other sleepers, trapped in their own torments. Also thudding footsteps.

Hey, is her red hair getting darker and duller?

Molly! Wise UP!

This is one of the creepiest books I’ve read in a while. But it’s also lovely, dark, and deep, examining the nature of greed, the benefits of death, what stories do for us, and the difference between stories and lies. “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ’em,” Molly figures out. “And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.” 

I got a little tired of Molly and Kit’s constant droppin’ of terminal “g’s,” and I could take or leave the fact that they’re Irish immigrants—it seems like an extraneous detail, inserted here and there for no particular reason.

Otherwise, this is a near-perfect book, the kind of rich reading experience that makes me glad there are middle-grade novelists like Auxier. I never read his first book, PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES, and now I plan to. You should too.

Dear FCC: I got this book out of the Blue Hill Public Library. I had to reserve it, because people in Blue Hill, Maine, still are clamoring to read THE NIGHT GARDENER even though it’s been out for more than a year. Nobody paid me to read it. In fact, I bet somebody would have bribed me for my place in line.