Sometimes I’m really not sure how I’ve ended up reading mostly from the elementary/middle grade speculative fiction list for this year’s Armchair Cybils thus far. Perhaps it’s Sherry’s influence. This is not a category that I normally delve into very much, so each time I pick up a new book, I have to remind myself that that’s what it is. On his website, the book’s author, Jonathan Auxier, bills The Night Gardener as a “Victorian ghost story,” which is a nice, succint description. Unlike other speculative fiction I’ve read, I didn’t have to read very far to know the nature of this book; Auxier does a great job of setting the mood early with his opening:
The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October. A crisp sun shone over Cellar Hollow, melting the final bits of ice from the bare trees. Steam rose from the soil like a phantom, carrying with it a whisper of autumn smoke that had been lying dormant in the frosty underground. Squinting through the trees, you could just make out the winding path that ran from the village all the way to the woods in the south. People seldom traveled in that direction, but on this March-morning-that-felt-like-October, a horse and cart rattled down the road. It was a fish cart with a broken back wheel and no fish. Riding atop the bench were two children, a girl and a boy, both with striking red hair. The girl was named Molly, and the boy, her brother, was Kip.
And they were riding to their deaths.
And yes, that’s what happens–almost–except Molly and Kip are neither one likely to take anything like this lying down, which is good for them and the family they’re going to work for, the Windsors. It turns out that the Windsors’ home is just plain old weird. It has a huge, gnarly old tree growing into it, and it’s not a normal tree. But that’s not all–something strange happens in the home at night. Molly spends a good part of her time every day cleaning muddy footprints and dried leaves off the floor. Who is the mysterious night visitor who leaves his trail throughout the Windsors’ home each night? Well, as with all ghost stories, this is a story best not ruined by spoilers. I will leave it at this: this story deals with wishes and greed and desperation and love. It’s a very suspenseful story with a happy ending for all of the main characters, and it keeps from being over-the-top scary because all of the weird and scary things that happen have a definitive boundary of the Windsors’ environs. It’s not really a complicated story, like Splendors and Glooms, which is what this story reminded me of a bit, but again, that keeps the creepy factor from going over the top. Anyway, if ghost stories are your thing, this one is one you’ll enjoy. I think it’s my favorite of the Cybils elementary/middle grade speculative fiction thus far. (Abrams, 2014)
Reviews elsewhere and related links:
- Review at Becky’s Book Reviews
- Review at Semicolon
- Discussion at Heavy Medal, the SLJ Mock-Newbery blog
- The Scop, Jonathan Auxier’s website