Rereading: TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce

TomsMidnightGarden

© estate of Philippa Pearce, cover illustration by Susan Einzig.

This is one of my favorite books. Not favorite children’s books, favorite books. It was first published in 1958 in England. I’m not sure when arrived in America, but I read it in the early 1960s, a recommendation from our school librarian, Mrs. Dorothy Grady.

Tom is very unhappy that he’s going to have to stay with his aunt and uncle miles away from home because his younger brother has the measles. His parents are only protecting him, but they’ve spoiled all Tom’s plans for playing with Peter in their garden during the holidays. When he arrives, glum and angry at Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen’s home, it turns out to be even worse than he thought. They live in a small second-floor apartment in a large old house which has no garden at all, only a paved alley full of garbage cans and cars. Tom tries to be nice, but he can’t even go out in the neighborhood to play because he’s quarantined by his measles exposure. He’s miserable, though Alan and Gwen try hard to please him, and the food is good.

The one interesting thing in the house is a very old grandfather clock at the foot of the main stairs. It chimes crazily, annoying everyone in the house by never calling the right hour. Tom would like to look inside the dial, where there are interesting pictures, but the clock is owned by the old lady who owns the house, whom everyone is a little afraid of, and she keeps it locked, coming down from her third floor room once a week to wind it.

With forced idleness and lots to eat, Tom has trouble sleeping, and is often awake at night listening to the clock. One night it chimes 13 times! Tom goes down to investigate, and is drawn to the back door, which he knows looks out on the dirty alley, but somehow on that night at that time everything is changed. Tom walks out into a beautiful garden that seems to stretch on forever. He comes to realize it’s the garden of this house as it was many decades in the past. Each night the clock strikes thirteen again, and each time Tom hurries down and out into his midnight garden. There’s a family living in the house who don’t seem able to see him, as if he were a ghost, but the young girl of the house, Hatty, is different. Though at first she pretends not to see Tom, she can, and before long they are talking about Tom’s odd situation. They become friends, having many adventures together, some rather dangerous. The home’s gardener can also see Tom, and is convinced the boy is a demon out to bring Hatty to harm. He does what he can to oppose Tom’s visits, which oddly seem to jump around in time and season.

At the heart of this charming and wonderful story is a secret that adds a whole new level of greatness to it. I will say no more about that. Read the book and you’ll find out. There’s a reason it won England’s Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book of 1958. It has my highest recommendation.

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