Ode to a Classic

It’s been a long time since a book stole my heart so completely as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. How can I have overlooked it all these years? Though it was published in 1958, when I’d have been precisely the right age to read it, I didn’t, nor did I read it thirty years later, with my own children. What a loss! If only, like our hero Tom Long himself, I could slip back in time! I’d gather three young daughters around me, and begin, “If, standing alone on the back doorstep, Tom allowed himself to weep tears, they were tears of anger.”

A boy, alone, trying not to cry. Who could resist? And Tom really is angry, righteously so. His beloved brother has measles and as a result he’s being sent to spend his summer vacation in quarantine with his buttoned-up uncle and clueless aunt, who live in a city flat.

Tom can be very rude. He’s also a ruthless asker of questions. While he’s not as obnoxious as that other garden-denizen, Mary Lennox, is at first, Pearce gives him a backbone that young readers will admire. Oh, let the gushing being! Every one of the characters in this book is easy to recognize and yet continually, delightfully surprising. The impetuous and imaginative Hattie, the stern gardener Abel, even Tom’s brother little Peter, whose role is all off-stage—every one of them springs to memorable life.

And the language! It never shows off, yet makes you want to dance. If ever a book begged to be read aloud, here it is. The cadence is stately and British; colons, semicolons and dashes abound; beneath the polished surface, the urgency of childhood pulses and breathes. The setting starts off in early twentieth century England and roams over time. But what makes this book a genuine, certified, authentic classic, is that the questions it poses will always bear asking, whether we can answer them or not.

For Tom, for us, that question is the nature of time, and what hold the past, present and future have on us. His first night with his aunt and uncle, Tom hears the old clock downstairs, reviled by the grown-ups for keeping its own capricious time, strike thirteen. He slips downstairs, opens the back door, and discovers the magic garden. Hattie, a girl in an old-fashioned dress, shows him its many wonders, and they become fast friends, adventuring every night. Hattie’s age fluctuates, and as the summer wanes, she ages, growing disturbingly older than he is. In a wonderful, witty scene, Tom asks his logical Uncle Alan to explain time.

“’Of course,’ said Uncle Alan, ‘it used to be thought…’ and Tom listened attentively, and sometimes he seemed to understand, and then, sometimes he was sure he didn’t. ‘But modern theories of Time,’ said Uncle Alan, ‘the most modern theories…’ and Tom began wondering if theories went in and out of fashion, like ladies’ dresses, and then suddenly knew that he couldn’t be attending, and wrenched his mind back, and thought again that he was understanding, and then again was sure he wasn’t, and experienced a great depression.’

Later in the conversation, as Uncle Alan still flounders about, Tom concludes, “Apparently, about Time, as about some master-criminal, you could prove nothing.”

And yet it’s Tom—Tom the child–who, as in all the best children’s books, solves the riddle for himself. His conclusion presages the discovery at the glorious heart of When You Reach Me, which in turn echoes and pays homage to the masterpiece A Wrinkle in Time. There is even, in the breath-taking scene when Tom balances atop the garden wall and sees the wide world outside beckoning, a poignant hint of Peter Pan. Yet all the while Tom struggles with physics and philosophy, Pearce never lets the story slip into abstraction, and his actions and thoughts are always those of a real boy grappling with real change.

Maybe my helpless swoon into the arms of this book has something to do with my own aging, and new perspectives on that aforesaid master criminal. Like Tom, I wonder what lasts, what we get to keep, which parts of us stay the same, and oh, who knows where the time goes? I have to admit, too, that I envy Tom getting to have his many fabulous adventures while wearing pajamas, my favorite ensemble. And if time really is a plastic, flexible entity, it’s okay that I didn’t discover this book till just now.

Please share your own favorite classics! I have a feeling there are lots more I’ve missed.


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