The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

August 8, 2010

I try to recommend to my daughter books that I have previously read. I had heard quite a bit about Neil Gaiman, whose star in the YA world has streaked through the heavens over the past few years. I had never read him, but thought my daughter might find his work enticing. Watership Down has languished, barely begun, so I wanted a second try. Her mother has a history with Stephen King and, it seems, our daughter has inherited at least a portion of her penchant for the phantasmic. The Graveyard Book, its Newberry Medal, and the gushing over Gaiman convinced me that I should suggest this one. I could not afford two lackluster receptions in a row or my literary credibility might be shot with her. I read it myself first.

The story begins with a triple murder (all family members) by a professional assassin. Only a toddler survives the attack on the family. The baby, through coincidence or infantile premonition, had chosen the night of the murders to wander from its crib. The killer, Jack, tracks the roaming child, by smell, to the graveyard.

Gaiman skillfully uses that impersonal pronoun:

It stared around it, taking the the faces of the dead, the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.

The child is known to be a he. In fact, the ghosts have been referring to the little boy as “he”, but Gaiman’s narrator uses the impersonal which creates a distance between the ghosts and the boy. The boy is not yet a part of the community and he is not really a full person yet, just a toddler.

The friendly ghosts hide the child and misdirect Jack temporarily averting sure death.

An elderly, ghostly couple who had never had children want to take the boy in and raise him. The residents of the graveyard hold a council to determine whether the adoption should be allowed. Their discussion is interrupted by a woman on a grey horse.

They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on-the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.

…They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.

And she spoke to them.

In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells, she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.

The matter is settled. The Owenses will adopt the boy and raise him has their own.

Gaiman is an excellent storyteller. He has found the perfect voice for this sinister story. There are murders and equally frightening scenes after, but the story is told as a story. In that quote above, the narrator is unobtrusively inserted into the story with the slipping in of that “…not as a rule…” Little details like that provide enough distance to remind the reader, perhaps unconsciously, that they are reading a story, the events are not real. And, yet, the story is so compelling and the little details so pleasing (“…a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells…”) that the reader is never pulled out of the story, but held tightly in.

The boy is named Nobody “Bod” Owens. The ghosts raise him with the mysterious Silas as his guardian. Gaiman carefully foreshadows key plot points and keeps the suspense building as Bod goes on small adventures. All the while, Gaiman is building in the little messages about childhood and parents and growing up that, I suspect, are typical of the genre.

His first contact with humans after his adoption by ghosts is with a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents visit the graveyard occasionally. The two always meet out of sight of Scarlett’s parents and, so, her parents believe Bod is an imaginary friend. Because no one else sees him, Scarlett thinks him unreal too, even as she tries to understand why he cannot leave the graveyard.

”Well, you can’t stay here all your life. Can you? One day you’ll grow up and then you will have to go and live in the world outside.”

He shook his head. “It’s not safe for me out there.”

“Who says?”

“Silas. My family. Everybody.”

She was silent.

Of course, the outside world is frightening for everyone, full of dangers for children and adults alike. Bod, as he grows, must leave the graveyard. He cannot live his whole life there. The ghosts and Silas, as all parents, worry about him and try to delay the inevitable. There are missteps. They give him freedom, but his adolescent curiosity and sense of justice court disaster. The dangers outside the graveyard are real, after all. Bod’s family was murdered and for a reason. Bod does not know the reason, the ghosts may not, but Bod does know the world holds a special danger for him.

Bod’s poor choices are more entertaining than those of most tweens. When he pours out his troubles to three passing ghouls, they sympathize. “What you need is to go somewhere where the people would appreciate you.” The anomic Bod follows the ghouls out of the graveyard and towards death. There is much humor for adults and much excitement for children in this and other vignettes, all of which drives home the messages of a frightening world, the protectiveness of parents, their wisdom, their errors of love, and the need for the child to be brave and careful. In other words, Gaiman does a good job of capturing both the feelings of childhood and the lessons teachers, parents, and awards juries believe are important for adolescents.

When Bod later decides he does not want to leave the graveyard at all, that he wants to stay with his parents and the other ghosts, Silas explains to him his difference from the ghosts.

Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “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’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

I tried not to take this little lecture personally, as an allegorical description of parents or old folks. I too have potential still. I’m not dead yet!

But there are times reading this, that I felt old. It is a children’s book, if a very well-written and engaging one. I say that not only because I enjoyed it, and quickly, but my daughter (who is not quite finished) provides me with excited updates as she follows Bod on his adventures. As a children’s book, though, the bows are nicely tied, the unfolding of events is easy to see, even if you cannot always guess exactly how. The book reminded me somewhat of Alexander’s Bridge and The Secret Agent in how methodically the story was built, how tellingly events are foreshadowed. In other words, it feels a bit like a throwback, to me. There is a certainty to it all, a lack of the moral and factual ambiguity that marks adult literature, particularly recent literary fiction. Of course, this is a children’s book so it necessarily provides its young readers with the confidence that Bod will prevail, even as it frightens them that maybe he won’t.

I enjoyed the different world of children’s literature. I liked the interlude it provided between more demanding works. And I enjoyed the story. It was a good story and it was well told. I gained back a bit of credibility with my daughter. Best of all, though, my daughter and I were able to share and bond over the story. I will treasure the book for that.