Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Warning: spoiler down at the bottom. The perhaps-necessary prefatory explanation: the book was written in 1958 and it’s set in England. Greater London, in the direction of Cambridge and Fen Country (but then the southeastern third of England is Greater London, and was even then.)

For my own records as much as telling anyone else about the plot: Tom is being sent away from home for some weeks, while his brother gets over measles. The two boys had been looking forward to spending a delightful summer together building a tree house in the old apple tree in the bottom of their admittedly small town garden. Now Tom is stuck moping around his aunt and uncle’s completely gardenless city flat, quarantined until he’s gotten through the incubation period for measles himself.

Bored out of his skull after only a few days of confinement indoors, he lies awake, insomniac, night after night, until the fateful night when the grandfather clock downstairs strikes thirteen. He creeps downstairs to find out what’s up, and opens the door that leads out into the yard so the moonlight will fall on the clock face so he can read it…

…but outside he sees not the manky little scrap of sickly grass and paved yard, with dustbins, which his aunt and uncle have told him is there, but rather a huge garden. The sort found surrounding manor houses of a century long gone, even at the time the book was written. Rows of columnar yew trees divide the kitchen gardens from the flower walk from the croquet court from the greenhouse conservatory; this much he can see from his cursory stroll through the garden that moonlit midnight.

Over the next few days, or rather nights, he explores the garden further. There are children living here, three boys all older than he, and a forlorn girl cousin his age, always tagging along behind the boys, who prefer not to play with her for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’ and ‘she’s younger than we are’.

His visit is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks, when his brother’s recovered from the measles and it’s clear that Tom himself isn’t going to come down with them, but Tom begs to remain. Nonplussed, his parents and aunt and uncle agree; he’s told only Peter of what’s going on, so only the two brothers understand why Tom wishes to remain. Over the course of the next few weeks, Tom and Hatty become close friends, though he is only a ghost to her, only nebulously present; walking through doors just gives him a funny feeling in his tum and he’s forced to instruct Hatty from the sidelines on how to make a toy bow because he can’t hold the knife to cut the branch or tie the string.

Though for Tom, the visits are nightly, on Hatty’s end they’re sporadic; Tom only comes every few weeks or months. Over the course of the book, we see Hatty growing up, and on Tom’s last visit, it’s clear that she’s on the verge of marrying the young man who’s been courting her.

‘Invisible friend’, dreams, or actual visits? We’ll never know.

A bit dated now–the book was written in 1958–so modern kids might be left wondering about things like the protagonist being sent away because his brother has measles. Otherwise it’s a fun book for dreamy readers. Astute readers will figure out the connection between the girl in the garden and Tom’s modern-day life, but it’s fun nevertheless. If you liked books like Magic Elizabeth or Octagon Magic, this is probably for you, especially if you’re a dreamy boy who wants to read books about boys.

(The spoiler? “Hatty”, the girl Tom keeps meeting in the garden, turns out to be the child version of the grumpy cantankerous old landlady, out of whose presence he’s been kept for the entire visit (even after he was out of quarantine).

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Perfume by Patrick Suskind

A murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer, a historical melodrama that only touches on the history it passes, a horror story which follows the horrifying agent. What to call this? A bit of each.

Grenouille is born in the fish market of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, with a uniquely detailed sense of smell…but no odor of his own. Raised an orphan, little is done for the child other than ensure he ingest enough to keep body and soul together; even as a child, there is something about Grenouille that causes both adults and other children to recoil from this gargoyle-like creature. Although he was only a child when he began to realize that his gift of smell was highly unusual, it is not until he has been apprenticed to a tanner for some years that he realizes that there is a profession which requires just such a keen sense of smell: perfumer. Now a young man, he presents himself to one of the premier perfumers in Paris at the time, M. Baldacci, and despite having no letters or presentation skills, earns himself a place with the man by creating, in mere moments, an exact duplicate of Amor et Psyche, the best-selling perfume of Baldacci’s chief competitor, Pelissier.

Through this and subsequent positions, not to mention a seven-year retreat to a cave in the Auvergne, Grenouille is working toward his ultimate goals: a human scent for himself, so that he may blend in with the humanity around him, but perhaps more importantly, the ultimate scent of love, derived from certain beautiful girl children, caught on the cusp of transformation into young women. The method by which he must extract the essences of Young Woman, unfortunately, proves final for the subjects in the short term, andequally terminal for Grenouille himself in the long run, …and for the people with whom Grenouille becomes engaged during his life. There are two trails of death which follow him: the one he causes in the course of collecting the various notes which will make up his Ultimate Scent of Love, and the subsidiary supports in his life…he does not cause the deaths of people with whom he has become close, but the majority of them die of apparently natural causes, unconnected with Grenouille himself. None of this touches Grenouille, any more than cutting a rose or a sprig of lavender would an ordinary human. And that’s what makes the book so creepy, so engaging.

It’s a creepy fairy tale of the life of a serial killer; Grenouille is not so much amoral, in the sense of deliberately choosing what he suspects is an evil path, but being so uncomprehending of human society that he cannot understand why the ‘scent normal’ majority are so upset about how he collects the components of his ‘Eau de Femininity’. The descriptions of what he’s smelling, and the skills and techniques of the perfumer’s art, are beautifully detailed enough that I was drawn in. Not a book for the squeamish, however. No, really. If the Donner Party’s nightmare upsets you…do NOT read Perfume

What to read next? Oo. If it’s the period language, try Edgar Allan Poe, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Poe’s got the overheated language that sucks you in and repels at the same time, although Suskind is a modern author. Incidentally, there has been a movie made of Perfume; while it’s an interesting movie—it’s hard to pan a movie which includes (please don’t laugh) Dustin Hoffman playing Baldacci and Alan Rickman playing a French nobleman—as is the way of the film industry, it strips out all the ornate language of scent which Suskind includes in the book.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Brat is on her own; she cannot remember her parents, and no one cares for her. She sleeps in the village dung heap as it’s by far the warmest option, and not so very much worse smelling than the rest of the village. The village midwife takes her in as a skivvy, to sweep and damp and tamp the cottage floor, scatter fleabane about to keep, yes, fleas at bay, and run the occasional errand. Though the cottage floor is not near so warm and soft as the dung heap, being provided food, however inadequate, gives Brat the time and energy to notice the world around her, and wonder if she might dream of becoming more than a beggar brat.

As Brat begins to settle in, she takes note of the midwife’s practices, the herbs to bring on milk, stop or intensify contractions, the charms to ease a woman’s labor and the general techniques Jane Sharp uses. Daring even to give herself a name, Alyce, she begins to think she’s earned a place in the village; a comb and a bath, an intact dress and nearly enough to eat, and she’s on her way. Not only does she befriend a cat, but arranges a position for a little boy of six, at first only called Dung but later Edward for the king, at the local manor house. Gaining confidence from aiding the local cowherd’s boy to deliver his favorite cow of her twin calves, Alyce, as we now must call her, dares help a local woman give birth after the midwife leave to deliver a likelier baby. She succeeds here—the baby is named Alyce Little—but flees aghast when she subsequently takes it upon herself to deliver another woman, but fails to deliver a difficult pregnancy.

She takes refuge in a nearby tavern-inn, using the work habits she’s learned with the midwife to earn her keep and then some. Even the local absent-minded scholar, staying at the inn for a quiet place to study, notes her keen wit and begins “teaching the cat to read”; needless to say, Alyce eavesdrops and learns her own letters easily enough. After Alyce helps a guest at the inn, thought to have a stomach worm, deliver a baby, Jane Sharp tracks her down. While she does not force the girl to come back, she makes it quite clear through an indirect conversation with the absent-minded scholar that she does not consider Alyce to be the incompetent dung-beetle the girl herself thought she was, but rather a girl who foolishly gave up after her first setback—determination is the key. Alyce comes back; at first Jane seems to send her away, but Alyce returns, saying “It is I, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away.”

Karen Cushman’s written several books about girls in Medieval England: Catherine, called Birdy, Matilda Bone, and others. The language and setting is such that squeamish parents might want to reserve Cushman’s books for older kids, and indeed they might be good for teenaged reluctant readers, or those who think that history is dull lists of names and dates as dry as the desert. If you’re a curious tween with parents who understand the value of challenging reading, however, don’t let that previous statement stop you; all Cushman’s books are rattling good fun, about strong-willed girls, or those who learn to value themselves and the merits of determination and education. If you’ve read all these books, and are looking for something to read next, try Jane Yolen’s historical novels, or E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver…or indeed any of Konigsberg’s other books. They’re not all historical, but again interesting stories about girls who learn to be bold and sure of themselves.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

What happened in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957? Right, the Little Rock Nine. Now, how many people know what happened during the 1958-59 school year? (Unless you’re from Little Rock, a student of twentieth century American history, or just pay a lot of attention to the news at the time) Don’t worry, I didn’t either.

Just to be absolutely clear, The Lions of Little Rock is a novel through and through; while Levine did weave in a great many facts about what happened the academic year after the Little Rock high school was forced to integrate, the primary characters themselves are entirely fictional. The community’s reaction, however, is reasonably accurate, as were the actions of the Little Rock school board and city government, along with the Arkansas state government.

The Lions of Little Rock begins in the summer of 1958, just before school is set to begin. Marlee (named for Marlene Dietrich) is about to enter seventh grade; she loves math, despite the general consensus at the time that girls can’t do math or science…and she doesn’t talk. Well, not much anyway, and then only to people with whom she’s comfortable. Hardly anyone at school! Seventh grade means starting at a new school, which means breaking in a new set of teachers (and a few classmates) to the idea that she doesn’t want to talk. Until she meets Lisa.

Lisa is bold, outspoken and intelligent, capable of putting down even the school’s Resident Mean Girl, who regards herself as Marlee’s only friend, with a trenchant phrase. Lisa and Marlee become fast friends, although Marlee’s perplexed that Lisa never invites her over to visit. The two work together on a history project during which process Lisa works on Marlee’s reluctance to speak in public, on the theory that if she doesn’t speak, everyone else will assume that Lisa did all the work; they practice in the Little Rock zoo, rehearsing various parts of their project in front of various animals, though the lions are Marlee’s favorite. Partway through the fall term, Lisa disappears; the official story is that she’s ill, but the rumor that she’s actually black, enrolled in a white school1 under false pretences, quickly proves true.

The two girls remain friends, and continue to sneak off to various places—the quarry, the zoo—where they can meet unnoticed by their parents, who’ve forbidden the relationship to continue. These meetings are few and far between; even Lisa warms up only slowly to Marlee’s overtures, as she cannot believe that Marlee would be any different from all the other whitegirls, so snide about the Negroes2 that they cannot even comprehend using a brush that a Negro had used for fear of contracting lice. Perplexed as to how to proceed but unwilling to give up on the first friendship of her own choosing, Marlee turns to the family’s black maid, Betty Jean, though even there, Betty Jean makes the same suggestion as Lisa’s and Marlee’s parents: drop the friendship, it cannot work. Alas.

Things improve somewhat after Marlee tries to thwart the bombing of Lisa’s family. Their house is still badly damaged by the two sticks of dynamite she had to leave behind in the bomber’s trunk, but this at least reveals the bomber’s identity when she speaks up, and produces the evidence of her snapped-off letter opener blade in his trunk, where she was trapped. The book ends on a rueful note: things are going to get better eventually, but the children of this generation shouldn’t hold their breath for anything in the immediate future.

Overall, this reminded me of Anna Jean Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August in its acknowledgement that the process of truly integrating our society is a long and rocky one, and the author permits no sugar coating of dewy-eyed innocence on the part of the whites about the true nature of the situation. There is a certain degree of “out of the mouths of babes”, although even Marlee acknowledges that this is the way the world wags, at least in 1958 in Little Rock. There’s a touching scene in the black movie theater, when Marlee arrives unbeknownst to Lisa; it is only when her family’s (black) maid speaks up for Marlee that she is allowed to remain.

1at this point, it was only the high school which was integrated, though only nominally and even that was something of a moot point, as the School Board had chosen to close it rather than comply with the Federal order to integrate.
2the term used at the time! not mine.

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman

Our story begins in Boston in 1849, where our protagonist, Jack Flagg, and his two younger sisters, Constance and Sarah, have been raised by their maiden aunt, Arabella, since their parents’ death. Unfortunately, Arabella has used up the last of her own family fortune and is on the verge of needing to sell their family mansion. Jack, a bold boy of twelve, determines to save the family finances by running off to the gold fields of California, of which news has recently reached our fair city1.

The family butler, Praiseworthy2, accompanies Jack to the gold fields, though they are forced to stow away on the Lady Wilma after their passage fare is stolen. Upon revealing themselves to the captain, they’re promptly set to shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers…but since they’re sailing through the frigid North Atlantic, this is hardly the punishment it appears to be. Praiseworthy proves himself equally resourceful during that voyage and in the gold fields. Becalmed in the tropical doldrums, and the ship’s running low on water? How to water the grapevine cuttings one passenger’s staked his hopes on…buy the potatoes on which another passenger has staked his fortune! Stuck with a barrel full of neck ties in a community where grubby denim and worn flannel is the norm? Sell it to lovelorn miners when the first lady in deity knows how long shows up…and so on.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, they make their way to the gold mining region and start working on amassing the fortune necessary to Save The Family Domicile. They do, earning both nicknames and a reputation for clever athletic prowess along with their rather heavy fortune in gold nuggets and dust…which is lost when they go overboard after their ship explodes. All proves well in the end, as Arabella, Constance and Sarah have themselves come to San Francisco, after realizing that they too would just as soon be having adventures in the woolly gold fields, and Praiseworthy and Arabella realize that true love has bridged the divide between mistress and butler.

While it is fun to read on its own—that’s what I did, although in fairness, I was a child attending elementary school in San Francisco at the time I read it—I can see this being included as part of the curriculum for grade school kids studying the Gold Rush specifically, and nineteenth century history generally. It’s not detailed enough, much less accurate enough, to serve as primary material any more than Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I could for the American Revolution. All three would do a great deal to humanize the time period, however; I think they’re rattling good adventure stories that might well prompt kids to voluntarily read more on the subject. Robbers, vandals, brigands and highwaymen, adventurers, roisterers, gruff men but kind, this is definitely a Guy Book for kids who aren’t quite ready to move on to Gary Paulsen. Certainly, Fleischman has a couple of other kids’ books set at about the same time that might also be fun to read—Mr. Midnight and Company, Jingo Django and Humbug Mountain—though they don’t have quite the same historical flavor as this one. Not that that’s necessarily a problem.

1with a nod to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers
2isn’t that a grand foreshadowing name, now?

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

A young and talented though not yet entirely established painter, Piambo, is approached on the street by a blind man, who relays the message from his employer: Paint me, but without ever seeing me. You may be in my presence only if on the other side of a screen, and you may not see images of me, ask me to describe myself or ask anyone who has seen me to do the same. All you will have upon which to base your sketches is what I tell you about myself.

Intriguing concept, most definitely. Piambo takes on the commission, though it proves as difficult as anyone with a grain of knowledge of how painting and painters work could imagine. The sittings last for several weeks, an hour at a time, while Piambo sits on one side of an opaque screen and Mrs. Charbuque on the other. The stories grow more enthralling, yet Piambo is no closer to envisioning his subject despite the snowstorm of words she throws to him. In the end, desperate for more concrete visuals, he searches the community for information on this mysterious woman and at last her own house. It is here that he finds a stack of paintings, done by other artists, of Mrs. Charbuque: all different, and all poles apart from what he himself is attempting to do.

To heighten the drama, there is a strange epidemic spreading among the women of New York; periodically, one will be found swooning with her eyes dissolved into rivulets of blood. To compound Piambo’s own struggles, he is pursued by the jealous husband of his subject, as mysteriously unseen as his wife; Charbuque speaks from shadows in the depths of alleys, from behind while clasping Piambo in a chokehold to the neck. The message is always the same: leave my wife alone.

…and yes, there’s a plot twist, so I’ll stop here.

The book’s an interesting take on the art and technique of painting, or rather of making a living at one’s painting while alive. The process of creating a portrait such as the one in the title, the tightrope balancing of following ones’ muse and remaining true to one’s own artistic vision with that of, bluntly, making a living. Holbein wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he’d painted Henry and Anne of Cleves exactly as they were, and Piambo’s in the same fix.

I’d call this Gothic Lite; while modern authors such as Dan Simmons ‘improve’ on the original in the sense of including a greater number of more lavishly supernatural details, Ford has stripped down the genre to its barer, and therefore more straightforward, underlying structure. Less circumlocutions. Fewer clauses, both subordinate and independent. And decidedly less purple; I’d call this no more than palest lavender. Recommended for people who like historical fiction, New York and the complexities of the Victorian Era but without the entangled fevered prose so popular at the time.

Now, back to Melmoth the Wanderer and Pride and Prejudice for me…and not least The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (sorry, did I say that last out loud? no plot spoilers here, please move along.)

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Lynnie, the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, is developmentally disabled; her parents institutionalized her when she was a young child at the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. Although she remembers a fair bit about her home life with her biological family, her mental limitations prevent her from truly understanding the concepts of “forever” and “since I was a little child”; there is really only now, today and the nebulous passage of the seasons.

Homan, Lynnie’s friend and supporter, is not only profoundly deaf but….drumroll, please…black. In 1968, that last alone would suffice to keep the two apart to the best of society’s capabilities. The fact that the institution in which they’re both “living” strongly discourages contact between “residents” of opposite genders doesn’t help. (Contact between the residents and the staff, well, that’s another matter.)

Martha is a retired schoolteacher, now widowed after a marriage of decades and an equally long career. She and her husband Earl had one child, which died, though Martha found some solace and fulfillment in the children who came and went through her classroom over all those years. Fortunately, she has remained in contact with many of her previous students…

…which stands her in good stead when Homan and Lynnie’s flight land them, and Lynnie’s baby, on her doorstep one dark and stormy night. Officials from the school show up close on the trio’s heels, but reclaim only Lynnie; Homan has already fled, and they do not know that Lynnie’s given birth. Martha is left with a newborn infant, knowing nothing of its parents or the circumstances under which they fled; being a good and honorable (and lonely) woman, she acknowledges Lynnie’s unspoken request and cares for the child as if it were genuinely her own flesh and blood. She calls upon her old students for assistance. One has become a hotelkeeper and allows Martha to stay with his family as they fix their newly purchased facility. Another is an artist with a summer home on Cape Cod, in which Martha stays one winter. And so on.

I’ll leave out the intervening thirty years except to mention that yes: it does have a more or less happy ending—I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to read The Story of Beautiful Girl for themselves—I’ll just add that I’m glad there were exposes of the institutions in which these people lived, not to mention legislation that encouraged communities to incorporate the people in them out into the community. Not only is it the more humane thing to do—who doesn’t want to be a self-supporting, independent person to the best of their abilities?—but it’s also cheaper. Tax-paying citizens rather than a tax burden is the way to go.

Keep in mind that the novel is as much about the daughter, left with the retired schoolteacher, as it is about the “Beautiful Girl” of the title, Lynnie, and her best friend, Homan. The author’s choice to skip between the three primary characters’ viewpoints fragmented the story a bit, and her additional decision to skip several years between chapters left gaps in the sequence of events. Overall, though, it’s a powerful argument for mainstreaming people such as Lynnie to the best of their abilities, rather than warehousing them or more life-threatening forms of abandonment.