Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener was a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s literature, and rightly so.
It’s a ghost story and a Gothic thriller, and in its tone and themes the novel is a throwback to the spookiness and humour of Washington Irving’s tales and the harshness and perseverance in Charles Dickens’s writing. Auxier reveals his debt to these writers not only when he uses this tone and these themes, but also when he sets his novel on a rundown estate in mid-nineteenth-century rural England.
Fourteen-year-old Molly and her eleven-year-old brother Kip come to England from Ireland to escape the potato famine for a better life. On their crossing from Ireland, they are separated from their parents, and hence they also are looking for a safe place to live and earn their keep. Despite cautions from folks they meet in their search, they pursue a lead to the Windsor estate in the sourwoods. It’s a decrepit big house with a gnarly dark tree growing up one side of it. After a delicate first meeting, the family—the mother, father, and two children — takes them on, Molly as the housekeeper and Kip as the gardener. Thus begins the novel proper, which covers just over a month in Molly and Kip’s time with the Windsors, a time that is made frighteningly memorable by the Night Gardener and the tree he tends.
The Night Gardener will grab middle graders and older readers alike. The characters are full and alive, the dialogue is crisp and natural, and the narration is just detailed enough to create stimulating feelings, images, and moods. A few words might send readers to dictionaries — the limpid sky, a hateful rictus — but dictionary searching is a good thing, and such dialogue spellings as an’, ’em, canna, and somethin’ might seem odd on first encounter, but each character’s voice becomes quickly familiar. Creepy characters and scary scenes could give readers nightmares, but the actions of those characters and scenes come up against undeniable acts of kindness and justice that should temper any fears. Still, parents of younger readers are cautioned.
Those moments of kindness and justice make this also a moral tale, but it’s not a black-and-white novel of good and bad. Characters weigh the differences between what’s “smart” (that is, safe, easy, or profitable) and what’s “right.” Molly and Kip, and all the Windsors — Constance, Bertrand, Alistair, and Penny — are called upon to ask themselves what matters most to them and why, questions that take on greater meaning because their circumstances are affected by magic, poverty, and illness.
In some of these moments we glimpse Molly’s gift for storytelling. She always has one ready to get Kip and her out of a tough situation, to lessen Kip’s worries, and to earn them respect and opportunities. But this gift and readiness give her — and any good storyteller — ability to be an able liar, too, and, in the midst of his own great storytelling, Auxier makes his characters, and thus asks us to, distinguish between a story and a lie and how they inform actions and relationships.