The Night Gardener
This year, I have decided to read all of the nominees for the Texas Bluebonnet Award. I’m curious as to what types of books are nominated each year, and I want to be able to make appropriate recommendations to parents and children who are interested in reading the necessary five books to vote. I decided the easiest way to start was at the top of the list, which happens to be arranged alphabetically by author, and so this was my first read.
Summary: Kip and Molly are down-on-their-luck Irish orphans looking for a job, and more importantly, a warm bed and a hot meal. Against the recommendation of everyone the come across, Molly has obtained employment as a housemaid for the Windsor family in their home in the sourwoods. However, when they arrive, the mistress of the house tries to turn them away, telling them that it is no place for them. Molly is insistent, however, and Mistress Windsor begrudgingly allows them to stay. Molly and Kip soon realize that something is wrong with this family – the master and mistress, as well as their two children, seem to lose their color a little more each day. At night, the sound of footsteps haunts the halls and no one is able to rest peacefully. After exploring the house, Molly learns of the tree that it is built around – a magical tree that will grant the wishes of your heart. In exchange, however, the tree demands a drop of receiver’s soul. As Molly and Kip slowly watch the Windsor family fade, they realize that they must save themselves – and the family – from the horrible Night Gardener who tends the tree with the sweat of fear from their nightmares. Are two children strong enough to break this curse?
What I Liked: This book undoubtedly has a powerful message about greed and lust. Although it is not apparent at first, the further you get into the story, the more you begin to realize the consequences of selfish decisions and thinking only of yourself. I also enjoyed that the characters’ struggles with right and wrong (and selfishness) were realistic. The reader can identify that sometimes it is hard to turn away from what you most want in the world. Auxier does a great job of making the struggle dynamic and realistic – and helping his character’s realize their own motivations and truest desires throughout the struggle.
What I Didn’t Like: First of all, I found this book the be very dark and disturbing. While it was advertised as reminiscent of Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, I expected a tamer version given the younger audiences. However, that is not the case in this book. The descriptions are vivid and often brutal – the snapping of bones, dripping of blood, and other elements are not disguised at all in the text. I also found the context to be poorly explained. Molly and Kip are Irish, and often revert to phrases common to their Irish brogue, yet most children would not recognize this phrasing or understand its use. The fact that these are Irish children seeking work in England is important to understanding their situation, and yet it is not clearly explained to the reader. Without some background knowledge of history, these elements are lost.
Overall feeling: Overall, I am not a fan of fantasy or darker imagery, and I was not impressed with this book. I found it to be too dark and twisted to be enjoyable, and I would personally be wary of recommending it wholeheartedly to children. To appreciate the struggle of the plot, the reader must have a highly developed sense of good and evil and be willing to struggle with that throughout the text. The vivid descriptions, as well as mature subject matter, make me wary of recommending the book to a younger audience. Still, the message is worthwhile if you can look beyond the creepiness and darkness. Overall, I would recommend this book for older readers who enjoy equal parts fantasy, fairy tale, and ghost story.