Darkness closes in. Listeners press closer together around the flickering light of the fire. A sudden breeze rustles the fallen leaves along the forest floor. Deep among the trees a branch snaps, breaking the relative silence. Faces turn, wide frightened eyes look at one another. It's time.
The moment has come to begin the story; a most anticipated tale of ghosts, houses held together by ancient promises, children all alone and a family caught in a deadly web. All you have to do is be brave enough to be scared. All you have to do is open the cover and turn the page of Jonathan Auxier's The Night Gardener (Amulet Books, an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., May 20, 2014).
Storyteller At The Crossroads
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.
Siblings, red-haired Molly and Kip, seeking employment, are making their way in a fish cart, drawn by a rather stubborn horse they have named Galileo, to the Windsor estate. They have come to England from Ireland hoping to be eventually reunited with their missing parents. Having traveled for days they are cold and hungry; Kip is ill with his lame leg feeling worse. Along the way, asking for guidance, every person has urged them to turn around, to avoid the sour woods. An elderly woman, a local storyteller, Hester Kettle, finally gives them the correct directions amid warnings, eliciting a promise.
Their arrival at the manor is not as they anticipated. Next to and growing within the structure is an ageless towering tree. Mistress Windsor is not expecting them; her now absent husband having failed to inform her of their new household help. A boy, Alistair, about Molly's age, has an air of entitlement about him. Only the younger girl, Penny, is excited about their coming. Already Molly has won her over with one of her special stories.
Constance Windsor, against her better judgment, allows Molly and Kip to stay. After touring from room to room with her, Molly is certain this family and this house are shrouded in evil. Further incidents confirm her assumptions; a tall, dark-clothed man wearing a top hat wandering about after dark, deep holes dug around the base of the tree, a small secret room behind a locked green door, and dreams; all the family members, Molly and Kip have bad dreams.
Further complications are Master Windsor's financial problems, a mysterious moonlit garden in the woods and the physical changes creeping over all who sleep in the mansion. As secrets are revealed unease turns to terror, the line between stories and lies blurs, and your heart's desire has horrific consequences. As a legend lives, love must fight its biggest battle.
In a four page author's note at the book's end Jonathan Auxier chats with readers about the nine year journey taken to bring this book to them. Evidence of those nine years speaks eloquently on every single page. A deep sense of atmosphere emanates immediately continuing to build even with the final sentence. Many chapters end with a suspenseful thought. Your senses are on high alert.
Each character is realistically and fully developed complete with strengths and weaknesses. As readers we come to understand why they do what they do, even those driven by malevolent desires. These beings stir up feelings of compassion, deep respect, sadness, affection and fear. We cheer for our champions; when goodness strikes out against the wicked.
That Jonathan Auxier chooses to have two of his characters be tellers of tales, storytellers, is of importance. One speaks of what was and is; the other weaves words as moments dictate. More than once the characters (and readers) are challenged as to the use of stories, their place and purpose. Here are some sample passages.
The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body.
Molly turned onto her back and slowly shut her eyes. For the first time, she let herself feel the exhaustion that she had been fighting for weeks. Every part of her was worn out. Her hands, feet, legs, arms---even the tips of her hair felt tired. Molly was too tired to think about the strange pale family or the strange ugly tree or the strange portrait in the library.
She was too tired, even, to register the sound of a door opening and heavy footsteps entering the house.
Nearly a week has passed since I completed the reading of The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier in one sitting; the story consuming me and my day. The images of the manor, the tree, the gardener, the Windsor family, Fig and Stubbs, Hester Kettle, Kip and Molly are as real to me now as when I was reading the book. There is nothing better than a good scary story. This one lingers asking you to read it again...and you will. This is classic storytelling. This is the best.
The dust jacket artwork and book case design add to the overall spookiness of this title. Leaves in gray and black on the endpapers as well as swirling about each chapter continue creating a sense of foreboding. Several double page spreads of the tree, the night gardener and a full moon provide a backdrop for the title, verso, dedication, quotations and contents pages. This is excellent bookmaking.
Please take the time to visit Jonathan Auxier's website linked to his name above. He has graciously included a post of the playlist; songs he listened to while writing this book. This is a link to his post at the Nerdy Book Club about The Night Gardener. Stop by and listen to Jonathan Auxier's podcast interview at Let's Get Busy hosted by teacher librarian, Matthew C. Winner. This link will take you to a series of posts Jonathan Auxier did about his road to publication. Enjoy the video below which was posted on YouTube about a Skype visit Jonathan Auxier had with a group of students.