CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 7. . . .October 20, 2017
The Night Garden.
Toronto, ON: Puffin/Penguin, 2017.
292 pp., hardcover & e-format, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-1431-9864-2 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-1431-9859-8 (e-format).
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Todd Kyle.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
He was irritated and I knew how he felt. Magic is all right when you’re bored and want to pretend something more interesting. But when you’re in a crisis and your resources are stretched to the breaking point, you really don’t want to be bothered with such nonsense. You want the security of a solid, familiar reality and the grounded earthbound things you know. But facts are facts. And sometimes you have to deal with what is in front of you whether you want to or not.
“I think he wished,” I said. “I think he wished and his wish took him somewhere.”
“Ridiculous,” said Wilfred.
But Winifred looked stunned and terrified as the realization hit her.
“If he wished,” she whispered to herself, “what would he wish for?”
Then, before we could stop her, she screamed, “Zebediah!” and went tearing out of the room and down the stairs.
Franny Whitekraft, 12, and her adoptive parents, Sina and Old Tom, are plunged into the unknown when their farm is visited by the Madden children while their mother tries to stop their father, Fixing Bob, from getting into trouble at the air force base where he works towards the end of World War II. Winifred, Wilfred, and Zebediah Madden learn of the Whitekraft family lore about their Night Garden, which offers everyone who enters one single wish, and whose caretaker is an amnesiac hermit living on their farm. When they learn that Fixing Bob has stolen the intrepid Canadian war plane, the Argot, and that the army has been ordered to shoot it down, the children use their wish to join him on the plane, followed by Old Tom and the hermit. The hermit, who appears to be a former air force officer, helps them parachute to safety, where they quickly cover up the crime by faking a car accident to explain Bob’s disappearance and sinking the plane in a cove. The air force never learns the truth, Bob is honorably discharged, and life returns to normal.
Horvath’s work is always something special, with a touch of magic that makes it seem as though it takes place in another world, although it is very much our own (the book is set in rural Vancouver Island). Her particular gift is to make the mundane seem sparkling, and the bizarre seem obvious, writing with a detached nonchalance that seems more like a sideways glance than a direct view. Here, though, the somewhat convoluted, mysterious, dangerous plot is more direct and literal than usual, and the results are mixed.
Certainly there is no shortage of Horvath’s signature witty, pithy, and philosophical writing. As narrator, Franny is almost wise beyond her 12, giving us gems such as this:
Nobody ever paid attention to children when there were grown-ups in the room. It was one of the wonderful things about being a child. It was like being invisible. I knew I would rue the day when I was grown up and accountable and taken seriously.
The cast of characters is, as usual, endearing and magical, alternating between oddball, earnest, and lovingly kind. Some of the most entertaining characters, like Miss Macy (who rescues the hermit from drowning after landing the plane) and their oblivious housekeeper Gladys (who provides a good excuse for a car accident) seem to have no purpose and yet eventually pop up as plotline essentials, making them more than bizarre sideshows. Old Tom is lovable, attached to his farm and his gardens and deeply suspicious of new technology, foreshadowing the advent of online devices when ruing the day the family bought a radio because
...before you know it, you’re living life secondhand. You don’t talk to people face-to-face anymore because the people on the radio are so much more interesting…You think everyone else is monitoring it, and you know what? They are! They’re listening to this object and not to each other.
The most hilarious line is also Tom’s when he angrily and reluctantly wastes his one Night Garden wish to go rescue the Maddens—his last words before disappearing are, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”
The plot does occasionally get weighted down with its own complexity. While Franny is the narrator, the viewpoint occasionally and unexpectedly shifts from her experiences, largely in order to follow the action on the speeding plane while Franny and Sina wait anxiously in the farmhouse. The same goes for the news reports about the Argot, which are recounted without quotation and with occasionally drifting tenses. A few plot items don’t quite add up—Sina is not told about letters Zebediah is receiving from his father asking for his help in stealing the plane, yet she does not seem surprised when the children make the connection between the letters and the plane’s disappearance. The group are ushered out the “door” of the plane in their parachutes. Bob’s parachute is caught on a seaside cliff and collides with the rock, but his children attached to the same parachute simply roll away. Even the Argot, itself, seems a pale shadow of the sort of steampunk machine that might have inspired it.
Nonetheless, there is something special about The Night Garden that helps compensate for the slightly awkward plot, and its musings about the importance of family, the magic of art, and the mystery of what we can never fully understand help package it in a gem of a read that will pique the tastes of the most serious readers in the middle to junior grades.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and Past-President of the Ontario Library Association.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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