Ghosts or Time Travel? Tom’s Midnight Garden

Last time, I chatted about a ghost story book masquerading as a time travel. And now for the flipside: a time travel book masquerading as a ghost story: Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce.

As the book opens, Tom is sulking, since his parents are sending him to the home of a not much liked aunt and uncle, just because his younger brother has the measles. Tom would rather have the measles than stay with Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen. His parents, on the other hand, are firm: one kid in the house with the measles is quite enough, thanks, even if Tom is yelling at them. His arrival at his aunt and uncle’s place does nothing to cheer him up; it’s one of many gloomy and depressing flats carved out from one of those huge old English family homes. He sulks some more.

Until, that is, the clock strikes thirteen.

The clock in question is an old grandfather clock, so old that it’s screwed into the wall, and no one can move it, that keeps correct time, but doesn’t strike the hour correctly—although its booms can be heard throughout the old flats. To the point that it helps keep Tom awake—allowing him to hear that thirteenth strike, which makes him curious enough to head out of the flat and down to the clock for a bit of exploring. Which in turn leads him to do some exploring—and leads him to a magical garden.

I say magical, because the garden only appears when the clock strikes thirteen. During regular hours—day and evening and night—the garden isn’t there.

Fortunately, Tom can still slip into the garden whenever the clock strikes thirteen, which it kindly continues to do every single night. And although most of the people in that garden can’t see him, one—a little girl named Hatty—can. And best of all, she’s willing to be his friend. Oh, sure, she has a tendency to tell some major lies—including the not even remotely true assertion that she is a princess—but she’s fun, she’s willing to build a tree house with him (this is honestly the best kind of friend)—and she’s as lonely and as desperate to see him as he is to see her.

Soon, Tom is telling his aunt and uncle that he wants to stay with them just a little bit longer. To put it mildly, they are surprised—not only was Tom sulky and rude and sometimes even quarrelsome when he first arrived, but he’s since spent most of the daylight hours writing letters about the garden to his brother Peter. When not arguing. But aunt Gwen, at least, is touched and delighted, and Tom for once has the tact not to tell her his actual motivations. Peter, who knows all about the secret magical garden from Tom’s letters as well, also understands, even if he is (understandably) jealous.

(It does seriously suck that Tom gets magical adventures while poor Peter just gets letters and the measles, especially since Peter seems like a much nicer kid, even if Peter gets a touch—a tiny touch—of magical adventures later. But I anticipate.)

It doesn’t take Tom long to become addicted to these midnight visits—after all, despite several well meaning attempts by his aunt to Have Fun, the trips to the garden are the only bright spot in Tom’s life, and Hatty is Tom’s only friend. Plus, these trips to the garden do feel very magical: almost no one can see Tom, and in the garden, he can actually walk through things. Some things.

And yet, Tom is well aware that when not in the garden, he is alive and well. And that the clothes he sees in the garden are all quite old-fashioned—say, something that might be worn in the 19th century, well before the house was converted into flats. Hatty, meanwhile, is well aware that Tom can walk through doors, and that almost no one—except for her, the gardener, and the animals—can see Tom at all.

One of them, they reluctantly agree, must be a ghost.

Right?

(Spoiler: Maybe.)

(Spoiler: Ok, no.)

(Spoiler: But it’s not quite what you’re thinking, either.)

As it turns out, however ghostlike their story may seem, what with walking through walls and images of people long dead and clocks that strike thirteen—it’s possible—just possible—that something else entirely is going on here.

That something else can probably be sorta guessed from the title of this, but the real trick is how cleverly Pearce drops tiny clues to what’s really going on—from hints in the conversation in both time periods to—if you are paying very close attention—a certain name. It’s also kinda satisfying to see that poor Peter (really, I spent the entire book mostly feeling sorry for him) is one of the main keys to solving the mystery.

The book is filled with various subtle touches like this. For instance, it’s easy to assume that Tom’s dislike of Uncle Alan is based solely on his current fit of sulkiness and general anger at the world—but as the book progresses, Pearce shows us that although Uncle Alan usually means well, he is also almost continually tense and short-tempered, and not overly inclined to see the world from other viewpoints. It’s not just his interactions with Tom and his wife, either; in a brief scene, Uncle Alan gets testy with his harmless landlady.

Tom, who, Hatty and Peter aside, and even including them, tends to be terribly self-absorbed, isn’t inclined to think much about why Uncle Alan is this—he just knows that he doesn’t like Uncle Alan. But here and there, Pearce drops more hints for attentive readers: Uncle Alan is furious because life has not gone the way Uncle Alan wanted it to, and this, in turn, has added bitterness and fury to his life, despite attempts to control both. It provides a sympathetic touch to an otherwise unsympathetic supporting character. Pearce adds the same touches to a few of her characters in the past, as well: only one comes off as thoroughly unsympathetic. Not surprisingly this is the one character who seems completely borrowed from Jane Eyre.

I have to warn readers: Tom, when we first meet him, is not exactly the most sympathetic protagonist. He’s sulky and rude to the point where I can’t entirely blame Uncle Alan for yelling (even if Uncle Alan does tend to overreact to things) and have to praise his parents for not hitting him. To make up for this, Hatty is a complete delight: eager, charming, imaginative, playful, and sympathetic. And—probably under her influence—Tom improves. He does, to his credit, write his sad and lonely little brother regularly; the letters—carefully marked TOP SECRET so none of the grown-ups will find out about the garden—are about the only thing that poor Peter has to look forward to, and Peter is soon even more interested in the garden than Tom is. And Tom’s approach to figuring out what, exactly, is going on in the garden is admirably methodical and clever. He gets it partly wrong, but that’s partly because he doesn’t have access to all of the information.

And Tom’s many flaws, along with Hatty’s very real troubles, add a needed touch of realism to an otherwise fairly unreal book.

But for all that, this is not really a book about sympathy, or rudeness, or anger, but rather a book about loneliness, and change, and acceptance. As a character says, at one point, “…nothing stands still, except in our memory,” and this is a powerful tale of the truth of that, and—if not quite a ghost story—a deep mediation on time.

Note: Technically, we should be moving on from this to The Children of Green Knowe, the most logical successor. But I’ve heard a few rumors about an upcoming Hollywood film to be released in August, based on a completely different, yet also important book, dealing with some issues of memory and change. So, next up, that series.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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