I have a dear friend who is in London right now studying Shakespeare and I had her ask her mates the names of a few classic books that most kids growing up in the UK read. Kind of like the British version of Little House on the Prairie or Charlotte's Web. Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, published in 1957 and winner of the Carnegie Prize (the British version of the Newbery, but they let authors from any country win, whereas you have to be American to win the Newbery) in 1958, was the number one book mentioned. After reading it, I can see why kids would continue to read and love this magical book decades after it was written. After reading so many contemporary middle-grade fantasy novels and gobbling them up like candy, reading an older work of fantasy definitely requires changing gears and downshifting expectations about plot and pace. Sometimes reading Tom's Midnight Garden was a bit like climbing over sand dune after sand dune, knowing that an oasis was somewhere ahead of me. It was worth the work and the wait, but I do wonder if a young reader would have the patience needed to reach the same level of appreciation? Sometimes when book has these qualities, I designate it a "read-out-loud" book and that makes the journey more doable for myself and my kids. It's a great way of getting to read a classic book you may have missed in your childhood while also making sure that it is part of your own children's childhood.
In Tom's Midnight Garden, Pearce does a fine in the creation of her main character, Tom Long. Forced into a circumscribed existence because his brother Peter has measles and he just might be contagious, Tom has been sent to live with his Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan in a nearby town. They live in an old manor house that has been converted into an apartment building, without even a garden out back to take Tom's mind off his misery and loneliness. Things go from bad to worse when Tom, who's room was once a nursery with bars on the window and is stocked with his Aunt Gwen's old school girl stories, discovers a grandfather clock with an ornately, if oddly, painted face, in the hallway of the building that he is instructed to never touch. It seems the clock belongs to Mrs Bartholomew, an elderly, very particular neighbor who lives on the top floor. Outside of Aunt Gwen's cooking, the grandfather clock is the most interesting thing in Tom's life and, when on a typically sleepless night for him, he hears the clock strike thirteen, he knows he has to investigate. Tom sneaks out of the apartment and down to the main hallway and opens the back door to let in some more moonlight so he can investigate the clock, which has a strange painting of an angel and the words, "Time No More" inscribed on it, which puzzles Tom for most of the book. When he looks out the back door and sees a great garden with an enormous fir tree, an expansive lawn, flowerbeds and a green house almost as big as a real house, he is indignant. This most definitely is not the "sort of back-yard, very poky, with rubbish bins" that's really nothing to see, as Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan had described it. Tom closes the door and is so engrossed by the garden that he thought wasn't there that he doesn't notice the housemaid moving from room to room across the hall. When he does catch on, he realizes that the hall itself is not the same. Instead of the laundry box, milk bottles and travel posters that he remembered, there is now a "tall Gothic barometer, a fan of peacock feathers, a huge engraving of a battle (hussars and horses and shot-riddled banners) and many others pictures. There was a big dinner gong, with its wash-leathered gong-stick hanging beside it." And, although he tries to speak to the maid, he goes unnoticed. When Tom tries to follow her, the maid "simply thinned out" and is gone. In fact, "even as he stared at where she had been, Tom became aware of something going on furtively and silently about him. He looked around sharply, and caught the hall in the act of emptying itself of furniture and rugs and pictures. They were not positively going, perhaps, but rather beginning to fail to be there."
Pearce takes her time and lets her story take shape as Tom makes his own discoveries at a childish pace and in a childish way. And I use the word "childish" in the best sense, meaning that his actions, reactions and responses feel genuine. Through an intentionally philosophical conversation with his Aunt and Uncle, Tom tries to get them to confess to their lie about the garden being paved over, although he only ends up infuriating his uncle. This adds to the mystery and Pearce keeps the reader guessing for quite a while as to whether the garden is there or not, or if there are ghosts in the house and even has Tom wonder at one point whether he himself is a ghost. As the days and nights pass, Tom's sleeplessness continues as does the odd thirteenth chime of the clock, giving him plenty of time to explore the midnight garden. There, he meets Hatty, seemingly the only person in the garden who can see him. Their friendship gets off to a rocky start, but both are so lonely that they are soon having adventures together. One fantastic thing Pearce does with her story is to shake up the linear flow of time when Tom enters the garden. At one time he enters the garden in the middle of a ferocious storm that knocks down the giant fir tree. Another time he comes upon a very young Hatty, dressed all in black, crying in the garden. Tom realizes that Hatty, who claims that she is a princess staying with her cousins while her parents, the King and Queen, tend to business, is really an orphan who has been taken in by her deceased Uncle's wife who has no love for the child. Hatty's all male cousins don't seem to think much of her either, making it even easier for her to spend her days with Tom. However, things come to a head when Hatty falls out of a tree where she and Tom are building a treehouse. Visiting Hatty in her sick bed, he realizes that she has grown older than when he first met her. An overheard conversation between her eldest cousin and her aunt also reveals her penchant for playing alone (which is really playing with Tom) has made her a bit of an outcast among her peers.
This marks a turn in the story that also brings it to a climactic, emotional close. Tom, who has been sending letters to his quarantined brother every day, telling him of his midnight adventures in the garden with Hatty, forgets a letter nearing the end of his stay with Aunt Gwen and Uncle Alan. It also marks an exciting skate down the river from one village to the next, and a ride home in the cart of Barty, a friend and admirer of Hatty. The wonderful thing about this is, although he is insubstantial and mostly unseen, Tom can make things happen. Wanting desperately to skate with Hatty but having no skates with him at his aunt's, Tom makes Hatty promise to always keep her skates hidden in the floorboards under her room. In his own time, Tom opens the floorboards, finds the ancient skates and takes them with him into the garden on the night of his last visit with Hatty. Somehow, the two are wearing the same pari of skates, new and old, as they make their way down the Thames. When the two leave the river to make their way to the top of the cathedral tower in Ely, one that Tom passed on his way to his aunt and uncle's but was not allowed to visit because of his possible illness, they see an inscription on a grave that reads, "Exchanged Time for Eternity." At the top of the tower, Tom and Hatty see Peter, somehow, and then the two worlds seem to unravel. The next night Tom wakes to find the garden gone and his aunt and uncle find him crying for Hatty in the dark of the back yard. This final event leads to a meeting with the old lady upstairs who owns the grandfather clock and the stories finally come together and make sense.
Novels that employ time travel always give me pause as I try to grasp the concept as employed by the author. One thing I love about Tom's Midnight Garden is the way Pearce handles this. By employing a dream state and a ghost like presence in Hatty's world, Pearce bypasses much of the confusion that comes with time travel stories. Although I'm sure it wasn't her intent when she wrote it in 1957, Pearce also maintains an old-fashioned feel in her employment of time travel and Tom's questioning of the flow of time. I would definitely reccommed Tom's Midnight Garden to any reader who appreciates older classics like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess or The Chronicles of Narnia, or just like a wonderful story of two lonely children who find friendship with each other, which is timeless.