Monday, July 10, 2017

'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce

Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn't exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

A Carnegie-Medal-winning modern classic that's magically timeless.

I chose this title as my Award winning Classic category in the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. It won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's and young adult's books in 1958. That's a British literary award that recognises outstanding contributions, and is named after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who founded almost 3000 libraries. So on with the book.

Tom thinks he's in for a long, boring holiday. He's sent to stay with a childless aunt and uncle while his brother recuperates from the measles. One sleepless night, Tom creeps through the back door into a wonderful garden the adults hadn't mentioned. Before long, he figures out that it doesn't exist in his time period at all. It's a garden from the past, as are the people he sees in it. Tom seems to leave no trace or footprint on the old world, and it appears the only person who can see him is his new friend, Hatty.

The two kids argue over which of them is a ghost. They are each certain it isn't them. Even though they are both right, I think Hatty has the stronger case in a way, since they're hanging out together in her time period. Tom hasn't officially been born yet, which surely makes him a ghost from the future just as much as any spirit from the past whose life has ended :) It's quite interesting, when the main character is the odd one out. If it had been written from Hatty's point of view, it would have been a completely different tale.

Is it as timeless a classic as the blurb would have us believe? No, in all honesty, I have to call it a dated one. Tom's time period is meant to be modern, yet I'm sure young readers would agree it's just a more recent version of old fashioned than Hatty's. Twenty-first century kids would have to laugh when they see the way he sets about researching the Victorian era, by turning to old encyclopaedias, which are now as rare as hen's teeth. Sure enough, the book was first published in 1958, so Tom's time has plenty of its own relics, the same as Hatty's time. But maybe that ironically reinforces the main theme, that time is a continuous flow that can't be stopped, however much we might want to make a dam and keep it stable. As the older Harriet says, the only place time can stand still is in our memories.

The story is a bit vague with a few questions we might have, such as what criteria do those who manage to see Tom happen to possess? It's not strictly youthfulness, since Hatty's three boy cousins never see him, yet Abel the gardener does. It would appear to be a sort of simplicity of heart, because the farm animals do too. Maybe leaving readers free to make our own conjectures isn't a bad thing.

The adults come across as real people. Aunt Gwen wants to win Tom's heart by feeding him nice things to eat. And Uncle Alan is strict, yet willing to have intense discussions bordering on science and metaphysics. I've got to say, their advice for dealing with insomnia is terrible! In effect, they tell him, 'These are the ten hours you have to spend in bed, so lie there until you fall asleep and don't bother us.' It brought back a few memories of my own childhood. I kept thinking of sleepovers at my grandmother's place, when my cousins had already fallen asleep but I kept hearing her cuckoo clock calling out every half hour, and lay there getting desperate.

The garden itself in this book is one of those lovely old Victorian ones with aviary, topiary, orchard, flower beds, lawn, greenhouse, and kitchen gardens. The story was written in a more leisurely time when kids' books could meander a bit, instead of getting stuck straight into the action as they tend to do now. I wonder whether modern kids would love it as much as kids fifty or sixty years ago did, making it a prize-winning classic. The fact that it's on my library shelf makes me wonder how often it's checked out.

Overall, it's sort of haunting in the nostalgic way that time slip stories often are. It's lovely to see two lonely kids in the same house, both longing for company, being able to bridge the gap of time that separates them. But it left me feeling that there still could have been something more. Maybe the shortness of their deep friendship was unsatisfying. Another reviewer mentioned that it might have been nice to see it extended into a series, as they both grow up. Perhaps she was right.



  1. Hmmm...I hadn't heard of this book before. Mulling over whether it goes into TBR now or not.

    1. I don't know that I'd recommend it as one of the best time travel stories, but it's an interesting little tale from its time.