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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

This ghost story is rich with layered meanings. A manifestation of themes involve facing fears, dealing with grief, and the affects of storytelling and lies on others. When fourteen year old Molly McConnachie and the aged Hester Kettle tell stories to people it is magical. Molly is so gifted that the woman, Constance, takes her on as hired help just so she can hear the end of her story that she spins on her doorstep. Likewise Hester can get food for free from vendors in exchange for a taste of her stories. When Molly and Hester meet in the story, Hester keenly asks the difference between a story and a lie. A creepy, gothic setting lightened with humor and great character voices and development make this a nose-pressed-to-the-pages type book. I won't be surprised to see this well-written novel on award lists.

Molly and her younger brother, Kip, were traveling on a steamer from Ireland with their parents when it sank. Both parents died and Molly keeps this hidden from Kip who was sick with fever on board. She leads him to the Windsor house where she has gotten employment from a man whose wife, Constance, does not want her help. Molly convinces Constance by telling her a story. The old house is part tree, part building and Molly and Kip soon learn that something is not right with the house. Each night the two have terrible nightmares and in the morning dried mud and leaves litter the floorboards. Constance's two children and husband have physically deteriorated like dead leaves on a tree. When Molly's red hair turns black and she too begins to sicken the two try to solve the puzzle of what is happening at night in the haunted mansion.

Kip is crippled and uses a crutch called, "Courage." He takes care of the yard and horse while Molly does housekeeping and cares for six-year-old Penny. Molly is protective of Kip because he is crippled and she thinks too young to know the truth about their parents dying in a shipwreck. This is a story about growing up and how protectiveness changes to independence at some point in relationships. For Molly and Kip, Kip accepts Molly's stories at first. Later, he wants to hear the truth and help Molly. Kip wants Molly to be honest with him. He's growing up and desires to share in the responsibility of making decisions. He changes from the young boy that accepts what Molly says to one that questions her and gives her advice by the end. Molly changes in letting go of her protectiveness and the two mature in their relationship.

Molly changes in the novel as she learns to deal with survivor's guilt. She blames herself for her parents'  deaths just as Kip blames himself for them leaving Ireland. He is too young to understand that their family left because of a devastating potato famine. He thought they had to leave because he wasn't strong enough to work the farm. His crippled leg makes him feel worthless and he must learn to deal with his disability. Meanwhile, Molly struggles with her parents making her and Kip take the last two seats on the life-raft while they sank with the ship. She feels guilty that they willingly died to save the two of them. Both children must face their grief and move on in life.

The youngster Penny adds humor to this somewhat dark story. The author does a great job balancing the dark side of this tale with some lightness. When Molly tells Penny that she has a dream, she means a goal in life, but Penny takes it literally and asks if she had a bad dream while sleeping that night. Molly is mature with how she deals with Penny. She either distracts her by asking a question or turns unpleasant tasks into a game. When Penny doesn't want her medicine, Molly asks her what her heroine would do. She suggests she'd make a hearty laugh and down the medicine. She's teaching Penny to face her fears. After Penny takes the medicine, she finds that the taste is actually yummy. Molly is showing Penny to have courage to face what scares her.

This trait in Molly is from her parents teaching her to face her fears. She describes how she heard a howling noise and wanted to hide but her parents taught her that if a monster was hiding under the bed, she needed to look under it to find out for sure.  She's plucky and courageous, grabbing a candlestick along the way as a weapon as she investigates the sounds. Kip is similar and talks about being afraid to hear the truth but embracing the fear. "True is still true, even if it's bad. That means I want to hear it." Kip is kind to Molly and likes her protection until he sees the house changing her physically and personality-wise. Later, he is affected too. The two become self-centered and callous. When the kind Kip says it is better a certain character was killed than them, it shows how much the haunted house has changed them both.

Alistair is a bully that Kip immediately recognizes as delighting in torturing smaller or younger people because belittling another makes Alistair feel powerful. Alistair's mother does not approve of his meanness, yet she can be cold and mean to Molly. Once in a while there is a glimpse of a kinder woman. Molly and Kip learn that even though the family is getting their wishes or heart's desire, it does not bring them happiness. Kip explains how the tree gives people their wishes or deep desires, but it doesn't improve their lot. He realizes that there is a difference between what people want and what they need. Kip doesn't want a crippled leg. Molly doesn't want her parents to sacrifice their lives for them. Kip also realizes that doing what is smart is not the same as doing what is right. Doing the right thing means risk. He needs courage to face the Night Gardener. Even Alistair who is mean and self-centered, learns what is means to take a risk for those loved.

The theme of storytelling has a unique twist exploring the difference between a tale and lie. Molly has had to tell fibs and gets progressively worse as the story goes on. Part of the time she's protecting Kip. Other times she's being affected by the power of the haunted tree. When Molly says her story was a lie, Hester asks what is the difference. Molly responds that a lie hurts people and a story helps them. When Hester asks what it helps them with, Molly doesn't have an answer. Molly doesn't understand the difference, because she turns around and lies to Kip in a way that is hurtful. Later on when Hester asks her, "What's a storyteller but someone who asks folks to believe in the impossible things?" Molly realizes that "A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens 'em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide." Molly, Kip and the Windsor family are all hiding from their fears.

The plot creates a menacing atmosphere, "Sometimes in the wee hours, there's a wailing sound come down the village road - the kind of scream that sets your every hair on end." Kip and Molly's Irish accents add voice that isn't confusingly heavy and creates memorable characters. They mainly say, "wee," "dinna," and "canna." While reading I did wonder why Molly makes everyone else get rid of their wishes, but she doesn't. This seemed forced and made it easy for me to predict one part. I also wondered why Kip didn't question Molly considering he watched every day for hours for the postman. I'll take Molly's advice to Kip, "We'll never know. And maybe that's the best. It's a bad tale that has all the answers."

The connection between oral history before written literature adds depth to the plot as well. In Ireland, storytellers were called, "bards" and various other names throughout Europe. The author cleverly weaves this history into his ghost story mentioning the famous Greek fabulist, Aesop. "Chanticleer and the Fox" is mentioned too which is a fable from the Middle Ages that centers around the harmfulness of too much pride.  This fable is thought to come from Aesops' "The Fox and the Crow" and I had fun connecting the references. Jonathan Auxier' is a moral story or fable too about greed and centers around how far people will go to get what they think they need. The doctor made me think of the moral fable too. He is racist toward Kip comparing Irishmen to baboons. He is so vain and bent on making a name for himself that Molly manipulates this weakness to serve her own purposes. The doctor is like the "Fox and Chanticleer" fable about pride. He is a buffoon and as a one-dimensional character adds humor. When Molly asks if he is treating Constance with leeches, he condescendingly tells her they treat with laudanum now. Pick your poison: leeches or opium.

Here is a great article where Auxier explains what books inspired him to write this nine-year labor of love such as Washington Irving, but I would add to his list "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. A major theme entails human greed and Bertrand has some Scrooge-like problems with money. When he's carrying a bag of coins and ""Molly thought to herself that it sounded more like a bag of chains," I thought of Scrooge chained to his money. The Windsor family is chained to the tree metaphorically. Kind Kip with his crutch reminds me of Tiny Tim and the ghostly Gardener reminds me of the Ghost of Christmas Past that used to scare the pastrami out of me. Don't pass this one up.

5 Smileys

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