Gardens take us out of our everyday lives. When you turn your attention to a garden, you leave the rest of the world behind. How easy to imagine then, that a garden could be magical. The plots of the two stories featuring magic gardens reviewed in today’s post have a few points in common. In both, the main character is staying in an unfamiliar house and discovers a time travel “portal” in the garden behind the house. Both Tom (Midnight Garden) and Ashley (Doll in the Garden) travel back to the early 1900’s although they are not clear what period they’ve found themselves in for some time. In both books the time travel is episodic in that Tom and Ashley slip back and forth between their present and the past. They don’t stay more than a day in the past. Back in time, they both encounter a lonely girl in need of a friend.
If, standing alone on the back doorstep, Tom allowed himself to weep tears, they were tears of anger.
I found the rest of the story engaging, too. This book is sometimes referred to as a time travel classic, and in some ways it does stand the test of time. In this story, Tom has to go to his aunt and uncle’s home in another town for a couple of weeks so he doesn’t catch measles from his brother. At first, he is bored as there aren’t any children around to play with. But then one night he discovers if he goes outside into what in present day is a tiny fenced-in backyard, he can travel back in time.
Tom finds himself in a time before the land was subdivided into many family plots. In place of all the houses and apartments of modern life, is a huge garden. (The word “garden” was a little confusing to me because as described in the book it sounds more like a multi-acre country estate which includes a pond, summer-house, greenhouse, heating-house, orchards, etc…) He meets a girl named Hattie in the garden. Hattie lives in the large house which owns the property. Together the pair enjoy the simple pleasures of the garden. Because they are both lonely, they really appreciate the other’s company.
Tom just has to go back in his house to be back in his own time again. And although the magic only happens at night, it is always daytime in the garden. Although Tom’s days are dull, he looks forward to evening, for every night he plays with Hattie. Yet, even if Tom plays for hours outside, when he steps back inside it is as if no time has passed. He can tuck himself back into bed and get a good night’s sleep. Interestingly, although Tom is visiting the garden over a period of just a couple of months, for Hattie about ten years passes. This adds to the bittersweet feeling of the book as Tom’s playmate outgrows him somewhat.
I really enjoyed the book. It is very “atmospheric” in the way of one of my top ten time travel books, Charlotte Sometimes. Yet, I find myself in the awkward position of stating I believe other adult readers who read middle grade novels for fun would probably enjoy it, but I think many middle grade readers would not. The negatives of the book include the facts that it is longish, not very suspenseful, and filled with references to unfamiliar British landmarks (is it just me that has this anti-British prejudice?) and British customs, or perhaps just old-fashioned customs. I imagine a skilled and motivated young reader could get past these difficulties, but an average reader perhaps not.
Tom’s Midnight Garden was dramatized by the BBC, made into a movie, and staged as a play. See also Charlotte’s lovely review which highlights several good points of the book, and even includes a photo of how she imagines the gardens to look!
The Doll in the Garden, Mary Downing Hahn, (1989, 128 pages) was easier to read than Tom’s Midnight Garden. I’m sure this was in part because it is 100 pages shorter. Also, it is set in 1980’s USA, which makes it easier to understand. In addition, the writing style is less wordy. In this book, ten-year old Ashley has moved to a new town with her mother shortly after the death of her father to cancer. They move into the upstairs of an old house that has been divided into apartments.
The cranky landlady lives downstairs. She warns Ashley not to go into the small untended garden in the backyard. But, of course Ashley and her new next-door-neighbor friend Kristi are curious. Ashley is especially enticed by a beautiful white cat that seems to live there. They follow it. As it turns out, “Snowball” is a sort of ghost cat that leads them into the past. Within the garden they find a beautiful doll buried in a case in the ground. The mean landlady insists it’s her doll and makes the girls give it to her. But back in time the girls meet the doll’s true owner, Louisa, who wants the doll back.
Ashley and Kristi don’t time travel into the past for very long nor very often. I prefer time travel books that have more historical details. I did like the author’s focus on some family and friendship issues in the plot. Due to the fact that the cover of my copy of this book was so (delightfully) cheesy I was expecting the story to be second-rate and was pleasantly surprised. While there is nothing very striking about the story or writing style it is a simple, satisfying story. Because the title and cover of this book feature a doll prominently, I think this is one a boy wouldn’t even pick up. Marketing-wise, I always find it fascinating when a writer has the confidence to rule out half of their potential readership, right off the bat.
I can’t believe this post marks the halfway point in my year of blogging about middle grade time travel books. I really need to stop procrastinating about upgrading the look of my blog!