Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

When Tom's brother, Peter, contracts the measles and is placed in quarantine, Tom is sent to stay with his Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan in a house owned by Mrs. Bartholomew. Mrs. Bartholomew also owns a grandfather clock, which, due to being rusted into the wall, remains on the lower level of the house even though her rooms are on the second floor. The clock never strikes the correct hour, and, Tom notices, in the middle of the night, it strikes a non-existent thirteenth hour. It is during this mysterious extra hour that Tom leaves his bed and wanders outside into a magnificent garden which is not there in the daytime. And it is in this garden that he meets Hatty, who is living at some point in the history of the house, and who can see Tom when others cannot. The two form a friendship which becomes important to both of them and remains so even as Hatty ages and outgrows Tom as a playmate.

I am starting to realize how heavily British my reading list is for this project. So far, I think only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Savvy are by American authors, and this is the fourth Carnegie Medal winner I have read so far. (The others are The Graveyard Book, The Little White Horse, and Skellig.) I used to have a really hard time getting into British books, even after successfully reading Harry Potter, and I have only recently been cured of this problem by watching EastEnders. So now that I feel I can handle the language, I guess I have some catching up to do in the world of British kids' books. In any case, like Little White Horse, Tom's Midnight Garden is another beautifully written story with which I have fallen completely in love.

I have always been intrigued by time travel and time slip books, so it was natural for me to gravitate toward this story, but whereas other books have tackled this concept from a very scientific standpoint, this book plays heavily to the emotions instead. This is a book about friendship between two people who love and admire each other despite the challenges presented by the confines of time and space. What begins as a story about a boy climbing trees in a mysterious garden no one else in his time knows about becomes something much greater: a commentary on growing up, a celebration of true friendship, and a life-changing experience for both Tom and Hatty. The ending, above all, is handled beautifully, showing Philippa Pearce's great command over the English language, and stirring up unexpected emotions in the reader.

Tom's Midnight Garden was adapted for film in 1999, and that film is infinitely better than the movie version of Little White Horse I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. There is a bit too much additional backstory tacked on at the start of the movie that does not appear in the book, and the screenwriter also added an unnecessarily cheesy ending that takes the reader beyond Pearce's stunning final moment, but everything between those two things is faithful to the book. Certainly read the book first, as there is nothing like it, but you need not avoid the movie, as it preserves the integrity of the story quite well.

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