The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman Once there was a little girl who lived in a big house in a strange and wonderful city in the North. Her name: Dove Black*. An unusual name for an unusual girl. Her equally unusual mother took her away for the summer, across the sea. I came to that strange and wonderful city and stayed in that big house. In the house was a book. The Graveyard Book! I fell prey to an odd illness during my visit; while my companions made merry in the streets and taverns of that city, I recovered on the wide and sunny porch of that house, the clucks of chickens from the chicken coop and the laughter of the children playing on the street making me feel rather less lonely. I took The Graveyard Book down from the shelf and read it. It was perfect company. Indeed, it is a perfect book!

I’ll dispense with much of a synopsis because you can read that anywhere. An infant is taken in by a graveyard full of ghosts (and more); they raise him as their ward and son. As he grows up, young Nobody Owens learns a lot about death and a little bit about life as well. Gaiman notes The Jungle Book as an inspiration; I’m not sure I would have thought of Kipling’s classic myself but after reading that comment, it makes perfect sense, title and all. There, done with synopsis.

Many times I felt as if the book was tailor-made for a young mark monday, what with the eerie atmosphere, the ambiguity, the graveyard, adventure mixed with sadness, life and death existing side by side, and at the core of it all, an unusual and genuinely loving family – but a created family, not necessarily a family by blood. All those things appealed to me at a pretty deep level as a kid, which is probably why I really loved Bellair’s [b:The House With a Clock in Its Walls|295801|The House With a Clock in Its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt, #1)|John Bellairs|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309204985s/295801.jpg|1098801] as well. I wish this book had been around when I was younger; I can easily picture connecting to it in so many different ways.

But I’m an adult and I still feel a deep connection to the book. All those things above are still things that connect me to a novel, of course, but my feelings about many of those things have intensified.

The idea of a ‘created’ family, one that can come together for a variety of reasons but one that will look out for and support and love its members, one that embraces the difference of the individuals within that family… so meaningful to me! It’s an idea that I didn’t start experiencing until my early 20s, oh the life of a quasi-punk cynical jerk outsider who suddenly realizes that there are others out there like him, happy sigh, and it’s an idea that I feel like I’ve tried to carry on with my adult circle of friends and within my work place. It’s actually why I even chose my place of work. The Graveyard Book offers this found family as meaningful and valid and beautiful, much as The Jungle Book did. Gaiman doesn’t bluntly pound the point home and he isn’t mawkish or even all that sentimental about it all – but it is such a central part of what makes the novel work. And it is also what makes the ending such a sweet and sad one. Sometimes, perhaps always, you do need to move on. Some things are transitory. Sometimes those families that you spent so much time with melt away and stay on only as memories. But you can always make those families again! Yes.

Ambiguity: I love it and I yearn for it in books. The feeling that the author doesn’t want to spell things out for you, that they realize the reader may gain pleasure from figuring things out on their own, filling in the blanks, imagining why something may have happened and what may come next. Not being spoon-fed every little detail and not tying it all up with a neat little bow. It seems like an easy thing to be able to do but I think many authors just don’t want to do that. Perhaps they don’t realize there is a sort of tyranny in excessive detail, in paths made painfully clear and obvious, fluorescent lighting rather than shadows and moonlight, endings that explain it all away instead of showing a newly opened door – an ending that leads to a beginning. That is one of the beautiful things about this book, that kind of an ending and the ambiguity of it all. Sure, it explained many things. But it left many doors open, for the reader to step through and explore on their own. Maybe this is also why I appreciate books written for children and young adults: because of the basic form of the genre, the actual length of such books, perhaps even because of the attention span of the audience… things often have to be left to the reader’s imagination. I like simplicity that creates mystery, simplicity that is its own form of depth.
“Hello,” he said, as he danced with her. “I don’t know your name.”

“Names aren’t really important,” she said.

“I love your horse. He’s so big! I never knew horses could be that big.”

“He is gentle enough to bear the mightiest of you away on his broad back, and strong enough for the smallest of you as well.”

“Can I ride him?” asked Bod.

“One day,” she told him, and her cobweb skirts shimmered. “One day. Everybody does.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”
Death is not the end! I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or heaven or a cosmic consciousness that we all float into. But I do believe in the somewhat corny We All Live On In Some Way, whether it be as memories or as influences or as just one more part of humanity that is connected to the rest of humanity because we are all humans. I dunno. The Graveyard Book literalizes that concept, of course. It does it in a way that can make sense to both children and adults – showing how things are forgotten, perhaps, and that’s not so bad really, and it does it by showing how we live on in each other, by the things we do and the people we care for. Is Gaiman a spiritual man? Surely he must be. There is a certain kind of spirituality to much of his fiction, an ease with and an interest in describing worlds that are larger than us – and yet he makes that greater world rather wonderfully prosaic, real, worlds we could actually live in, somehow. Some may think such things are depressing – or that a book that is set in a graveyard and that opens with death and where the dead live next to the living, all of that, that that is a depressing book. To me, it is the opposite of depressing. Death is a part of life; there would be no life without death. This book for children recognizes that and even, amazingly, celebrates it.

The book certainly knows how to illustrate Growing Up. Each chapter is a step forward, a snapshot of Nobody Owens as he grows up. At the end, it captures that wistfulness, that sweet sadness at the knowledge that growing up means you may never look at things the same way again, you can never go home again and if you do, that home will be a different place. That home may be a physical place, it may be a group of people or even just one person, it may be a feeling of being protected or a place where you learned and grew and loved and lived in a particular way. Good things to cry over. The tears may be melancholy ones, wistful tears – but yet not depressing ones, not to me at least. If anything, they affirm life. And growing up, or moving on, or going down new paths… it is also an adventure. I love how the ending makes that perfectly clear. Sure, shed some tears over what has passed and can never be again, but know that the future is still a path that can lead you to all sorts of places. It doesn’t matter how old you are – old Silas is about to go on his own adventure too. And so Nobody is sad and moves on and is happy and moves on and he jumps onto that path and moves on.

Trudi said in her review “Gaiman reminds me of why I love to read and I love him for that.” Yes, Trudi, yes! Very well said.

After I finished the book, I looked through Dove Black’s bookshelves and found many things that I loved. A lot of Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, Narnia, books by Edward Eager and Louise Fitzhugh and Colin Maloy and Garth Nix, and of course Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. I admire your taste, Dove Black. I hope all of these books have informed your world view. But how could they not? They must. Your mother put your paintings and your awards on the wall and she should be proud: you are a talented young lady. I think you will grow up to be an equally impressive adult. I wish you the best of luck! But I really don’t think you’ll need it.

____________


* A real little girl but of course not her real name. I tried to think up an approximate of her unusual name but I fear I have failed. Her real name is so cool!