The Night Gardener is the second novel from Jonathan Auxier (check out his fantastic blog The Scop) with perfectly creepy cover art by Patrick Arrasmith. Auxier's first book, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, an excellent story that reads like a cross between Peter Pan and Treasure Island with a bit of Dickensian drama thrown in for good measure. With The Night Gardener, Auxier has set out to tell a scary story and, with his extensive knowledge of classic children's literature, including a wife who is a Victorian scholar, he does a fine job. As Auxier tells us in the Author's Note, The Night Gardener was inspired by many literary sources including Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Secret Garden and a speech delivered by J.M. Barrie titled "Courage" that is about a walking stick, a storyteller and what it means to fight for peace. These all come together to create a story that is creepy and frightening but also rich with unforgettable characters and compelling questions about the difference between (and importance of) storytelling and lies.
Auxier begins The Night Gardener, which is divided into the parts titled Arrivals, Pursuits and Departures, with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost and another from Aesop. Then we meet the red headed Molly and her younger brother with the twisted leg, Kip and the walking stick carved by his Da that he calls Courage. They are headed down a bleak road on a crisp October day in a cart pulled by the barely cooperative Galileo that Molly insists she bought from a fish monger who was "joining the navy to fight giant squids." They are looking for the Windsor estate where Molly has been hired to work as a maid, but every person they ask for directions along the way tells them that they are headed toward their deaths in the "sourwoods." Molly is a gifted storyteller, but she has been using her talents of late to tell lies to take the edge off and protect Kip from the sad truth of the bleak future they face since they lost their parents in a shipwreck while leaving a famine blighted Ireland in search of a better life. Molly has told Kip all sorts of stories about where her parents are and what they are up to. However, her good intentions ultimately prove to be her downfall.
Molly and Kip reach the Windsor estate - which is on an island of sorts - to find a grimly decaying mansion that is being invaded by an enormous, gnarled, tree. Molly's new mistress wants to turn her away but settles for being frosty and demanding. Her children, the pudgy and cruel Alistair and his playful, story loving little sister Penny make Molly and Kip's lives alternately miserable and bright. At night, Molly hears the occupants of the house moaning in their sleep and finds muddy footprints and windblown leaves throughout the house each morning. The roots of the tree hold secrets as well, as Kip discovers when he falls into a grave-like hole nearby and the fingerlike roots begin to wrap themselves around him. Molly watches as the elusive Bertrand Windsor sells off all valuables of the estate, badgered by two Cockney baddies who make repeated visits to the manor. When Molly discovers the dark secrets of the tree and the Night Gardener who tends to it and why it is the toll it is taking on the Windsor family it's almost too late. But, Hester Kettle, a canny old traveling professional storyteller that the siblings first met on the road as they headed toward the sourwoods, reappears and changes the chain of events and the lives of Molly and Kip.
As the story draws to a close, Molly finally realize the answer to a question that Hester put to her early on - what is the difference between a story and a lie? "I think I figured it out," she says to Kip after an embrace with Kip that is "strength upon strength" and not the usual coddling, "a story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens 'em. A lie does the opposite. It helps you hide." This isn't just a sentiment that Auxier throws out at the end of the story to tie it up. He is a thoughtful, gifted writer and the questions of lies and stories, crutches and comfort, facing fears or hiding from them are threads that run throughout The Night Gardener making it the kind of book, like The Secret Garden, that is universal and unforgettable.
Source: Review Copy