Thursday, February 19, 2009

It Takes a Graveyard: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Ever since the child had learned to walk, he had been his mother's and father's despair and delight, for there never was such a boy for wandering, for climbing up things, for getting into and out of things. That night he had been woken by the sound of something on the floor beneath him falling with a crash. Awake, he soon became bored, and had begun looking for a way out of his crib....

He landed with a muffled thump on a small mound of furry, fuzzy toys. He was surprised when he hit the floor, but he did not cry out; if you cried out, they came and put you back in your crib.

He crawled out of the room. Stairs that went down, he had discovered, were fairly simple. He did them sitting down, bumping from step to step on his well-padded bottom.... When he reached the last step, when he reached the little hall and stood up, the diaper fell off. He stepped out of it. He was only wearing a child's nightshirt. The stairs that led back up to his room and his family were steep, but the door to the street was open and inviting....

The child stepped out of the house a little hesitantly. The fog wreathed around him like a long-lost friend. And then, uncertainly at first, then with increasing speed and confidence, the boy tottered up the hill

By now most people interested in the 2009 Newbery Award book, The Graveyard Book, have heard Neil Gaiman's explanation of how, with Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book on his mind, he took his two-year-old son to a nearby cemetery to let him ride his tricycle away from any danger of traffic, and in one of those creative connections which writers make, began to imagine a parallel story about a toddler whose family is killed by a midnight murderer and who unknowingly wanders away and into the kindly care of the ghosts within a neighboring graveyard.

There's no bouncy Disney soundtrack to this parallel, no singing and dancing phantasms, but the kindly Owens take the two-year-old into their mausoleum and make sure that he has a name (Nobody Owens) and everything he needs to grow up as a live boy in a community of benevolent ghosts. There is a mysterious Celtic tomb guarded mindlessly by the slithery Sleer, a Roman soldier who is the oldest human ghost residing there, ghosts of long-dead children who become his playmates, and a sixteenth-century witch who rescues him from mortal danger only when the, um, spirit moves her. Like Mowgli, Bod has a "retired" teacher who educates him in reading and history and other human learning, and he has a mentor, Silas, a being existing between life and death, who instructs him in the ways of the everyday world--and of that other world from which his family's enemies spring--and who ultimately helps him leave his hallowed refuge behind for the wider world of the living.

Bod grows up with the Freedom of the Graveyard, learning the secret ways of shades--fading, dreamwalking, haunting, and seeing in the dark--but knowing all the time that that man--one of the group of assassins all known as Jack--waits for him just outside the sanctuary of the graveyard gate.

But when Bod is five years old, he makes a friend among the living, a girl named Scarlet whose parents bring her to the graveyard to play inside the nature preserve which the old burial ground has become. Bod's connection with Scarlett inevitably draws him into the outside world and inevitably into both danger and the chance to make a life, a fully human life, in it.

Silas said, "Out there, the man who killed your family is, I believe, still looking for you, still intends to kill you."

Bod shrugged. "So?" he asked. "It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead."

"Yes," Silas hesitated. "They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished."

Despite its unique setting, The Graveyard Book is far from grim or terrifying, peopled as it is with a memorable community of spirits with all the marvelous vagaries of living people. The story is filled with humor and adventure, moral hazard and courageous, self-sacrificing deeds--everything an absorbing coming-of-age tale should have. As in A Wrinkle in Time, the The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Harry Potter series, among other well-known fantasies for young people, Gaiman plucks his young hero out of the everyday world and puts him in the company of fantastic characters and into the thick of the good vs. evil struggle between the seen and the unseen world.

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