The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier. Amulet, 2014, 350 pages.
Teenage Mollie and her little brother Kip are on the road at a very inauspicious time and place—mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. Their parents have sailed for America, intending to send for them when they are able, but meanwhile Mollie has found work in a country house with a terrible reputation. Everyone they meet tells them it will be death to go and work for the Windsors because their house is cursed. It seems the family is cursed, too: the anxious, ineffectual master, the tyrannical mistress, the bullying son and whining daughter. They live in a house dominated by a tree that has actually grown into and taken over one corner of it. Even worse, the tree seems to be…well, inhabited by a spooky presence that only appears at night.
The novel is subtitled “a Scary Story,” and that’s fair. Sensitive readers may want to skip it, but the scariness is manageable for most, and it’s not gratuitous. Don’t skip the opening epigram: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree…”. This should sound familiar as the first lines of Paradise Lost and as a major theme of the oldest story of all. The fruit of the tree has infected the Windsor family and soon threatens Mollie and Kip. Mollie’s only defense in her short, challenging life has been telling stories to bolster her own courage and her brother’s—but when does a story become a lie? And what’s the essential difference between the two? This particular story gives us a lot to think and talk about between shivers (and the shivers aren’t that creepy, in my opinion). With its clear theological overtones, The Night Gardener raises the best kind of questions in the best way, without preaching—for “It’s a bad tale that has all the answers.”
Moral/worldview value: 5 (out of 5)
Literary value: 5
Cautions: Violence (not graphic), Supernatural elements
Adult interest: youth leaders, parents
Recommended use: read-aloud, discussion starter, independent reading, character building
Awards: World Magazine Children’s Book of the Year Runner-up