Published in 2008, Neil Gaiman’s offbeat novel The Graveyard Book is a quirky tale about Nobody (Bod) Owens, a human boy who was raised in a graveyard. Bod came to the graveyard as a toddler, escaping his parents’ and sibling’s murderer, by the man Jack. Adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, Bod is raised among an eccentric cast of characters, most of whom are dead and inhabit the graveyard. Tutored by the spirits and given Freedom of the Graveyard, he learns special talents like “fading” in order to live in the graveyard comfortably and undetected, safe from the man Jack, who is still searching for him.
On his journey through childhood and adolescence, he befriends a human girl, helps the spirit of a witch, opens and subsequently escapes a ghoul-gate, dances the Macabray (a dance of the dead), and even attends school outside of the graveyard, where he confronts the school bullies. The characters in Bod’s life are unique and influential. Silas, Bod’s guardian and teacher, exists between the worlds of the living and dead, and can move fluidly between the two in order to provide Bod with food and necessities to survive. Silas is a voice of wisdom and a mentor to Bod. Bod is also taught by Miss Lupescu, a wolf-woman who imparts some very important lessons that end up saving his life. Combined with friends like Liza Hempstock, the graveyard witch, and Scarlett Perkins, Bod’s human friend, Bod’s experiences are in part shaped by his friends and teachers.
The Graveyard Book can be compared to the Harry Potter series for its supernatural elements and orphaned protagonist. Bod’s family, like Harry Potter’s, was killed by a murderer who continues to antagonize the one member of the family they were unable to kill. While Bod’s biological family did not raise him, he has a collective, non-traditional family in the spirits of the graveyard. However, his adventures stem from his own choices, and not the guidance or direction of parental influence.
Themes of community, friendship, and family abound in this unconventional tale of growing up. The Graveyard Book upturns the traditional idea of home and safety. In a bit of twisted logic, for Bod, being among the dead in a graveyard is safer than residing among the living, because to reside among the living means a certain death. Although it is difficult to leave the safety of the “known life” behind, Bod must move ahead in order to truly live. Of all the gifts the graveyard gave him, the most valuable is the understanding that, in the words of Silas, “life is potential.”
The Childhood of Nobody Owens
The Graveyard Book begins as a woman, a man, and a child are murdered by a strange man called Jack. The baby of the family, a child who has just learned to walk, has no idea he is in danger. However, he wakes up and wants to explore. He climbs out of his crib, descends the stairs, and walks out the front door. He follows the road to a graveyard, and the murderer pursues him. A pair of ghosts named Mr. and Mrs. Owens decide to protect the little boy.
When the murderer is gone, Mr. and Mrs. Owens adopt the baby as their own son. They name him Nobody Owens, which is soon shortened to the nickname Bod. The Owenses cannot get food and such things for the baby, so a strange, dark character named Silas offers to be the boy’s guardian. Silas is neither alive nor dead, and unlike the Owenses he can leave the graveyard whenever he pleases. All the ghosts of the graveyard meet, and after a long argument they decide to give the child “the Freedom of the Graveyard.” As he grows older, this allows him to behave like a ghost, passing through walls and entering graves.
No new graves have been added to this graveyard for hundreds of years, so it is old and run-down. Today it is a historical site and nature preserve, so local families often go there for outings. When Bod is about four, he befriends one of these visitors, five-year-old Scarlett Amber Perkins. He tells her all about the ghosts, and together they search for the graveyard’s oldest inhabitant.
At the end of their search, Bod and Scarlet climb down a long staircase to an ancient barrow. There they encounter a creature called the Sleer, which tries to frighten them away from the barrow’s treasure. Bod, who is familiar with the ways of the dead, quickly realizes that the Sleer is an imaginary creature and not an actual person. He is not frightened, but he is not interested in the treasure the Sleer guards either. He and Scarlett return to the park, where Scarlett’s parents are looking for her frantically. They take her away, and soon afterward they decide to move to Scotland. Scarlett returns to the graveyard only once more to say good-bye.
The summer Bod is six, Silas goes away and leaves a strange, strict woman named Miss Lupescu to care for the boy. Bod dislikes Miss Lupescu’s cooking, and he resists the lessons she teaches, which seem superfluous to him. He already learns reading, writing, and Haunting from two graveyard ghosts; to him it seems pointless to memorize Miss Lupescu’s long lists of strange facts, such as the ways to call for help in every language in the world. One day he wanders off to sulk, and he meets three small, creepy creatures who turn out to be ghouls.
The ghouls take Bod on a frightening journey into their country, and they say they will make him one of them. They claim to be fearless, but they are scared of flying creatures called night-gaunts. Bod, remembering one of Miss Lupescu’s lessons, calls for help in the night-gaunts’ language. They summon Miss Lupescu, who comes after him in the shape of an enormous dog. He learns that she is a Hound of God, a tenacious creature who chases down evil beings. The living generally fear Hounds of God, calling them werewolves, but Miss Lupescu rescues Bod from the ghouls and brings him home. Afterward the two become better friends.
About two years later, Bod accidentally falls out of a tree into unconsecrated ground. He meets Liza Hempstock, an ugly teenage girl who was drowned and burned as a witch many centuries ago. Bod decides it is not fair that, as a witch, Liza has no headstone for her grave. He decides to get her one, but he does not have much money. He sneaks into the Sleer’s barrow and steals a brooch from the grave. Then he leaves the graveyard—which he is not supposed to do—and goes to a pawn shop in town. The pawn broker, Abanazer Bolger, locks Bod into a side room and calls his friend, Tom Hustings. They have a card from the man Jack, and they suspect Bod is the boy Jack is looking for. They get drunk and argue about which is worth more money, the boy or the brooch.
Liza Hempstock appears to Bod in the room where he is locked up. He has so far failed to learn to Fade like a ghost, but Liza helps him do so. When the men cannot find him, they fight and end up passing out. Bod sneaks out of the shop, taking the brooch with him. When he gets home, he returns the brooch to its barrow. However, his adventure was not a total loss. With a paperweight he stole from Abanazer Bolger’s pawn shop, he makes a headstone for Liza.
Some time later, on a cold morning in winter, the graveyard begins to hum with preparations. People keep singing, “All must dance the Macabray,” but Bod does not know what this means. Nobody, not even Silas or the Owenses, will explain what is going on. A group of living people from the town below come into the graveyard, and Bod watches...
(The entire section is 2025 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
The Graveyard Book begins as a creepy figure called “the man Jack” has just finished killing three people in a dark house. He moves silently, and he has successfully murdered a woman, a man, and an older child without even waking them. The only person left to kill is the baby, a little boy who has just learned to walk. The man Jack creeps toward the crib, but the baby is not there. The man sniffs the air and follows the smell of the child down the stairs and out the front door, which he left open when he came in.
The baby is a curious child, a wanderer. He finds the door open, so he goes out. Now he toddles up a hill through the fog, and he slips through the slats of a gate into a graveyard. Inside, he draws the attention of Mrs. Owen, a plump woman who is “only moonlight, mist, and shadow.” She calls her husband to look, and three other ghosts appear to them. They are the baby’s family, panicky figures who have not yet grown used to being dead. The mother begs Mrs. Owen to protect her son, and then she disappears.
When the murderer arrives in the graveyard, Mrs. Owens honors the mother’s wish. She picks the baby up and hides him in her ghostly form. An odd, dark figure named Silas approaches the murderer, claiming to be the caretaker of the graveyard. He asks what the man is doing inside a locked park at night, and the murderer tells him about the baby. He claims he is worried about the child and wants to return it to its family. Silas has the power to confuse people, so he makes the murderer think the baby went toward town.
When the man Jack is gone, three hundred ghosts convene for a meeting. Mrs. Owens says she should be able to keep the baby because the mother—who will shortly be confined to her own graveyard, as these ghosts are confined to theirs—asked her to protect him. She suggests giving the boy “the Freedom of the Graveyard,” which will allow him to live safely among them. The other ghosts object that Mrs. Owens will not be able to feed the boy, so Silas—who is neither alive nor dead—volunteers to bring food. The ghosts debate the issue until Death herself, who looks like a grey lady on a grey horse, appears. She says, “The dead should have charity.” Her advice is final, so the ghosts agree that the baby can stay. They name the child Nobody Owens.
Chapter 2 Summary
As Nobody Owens grows older, the ghosts nickname him Bod. He learns to talk and often asks questions, but he does not think to question his strange abilities to see in the dark and to pass through the walls of graveyard buildings. The cemetery is old, and no new people are buried there any longer. However, the area is set aside as a nature preserve, and families sometimes come there for an afternoon. A little girl, Scarlett Amber Perkins, spots Bod one day as he is working on his letters by using paper and crayons—gifts from Silas—to copy the inscriptions on graves. The two children become friends.
Scarlett cannot see the ghosts of the graveyard, but Bod tells her all about them. She asks who the oldest is, and Bod...
(The entire section is 365 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The summer Bod is six years old, Silas goes away for a while. He leaves a woman named Miss Lupescu to care for Bod, who dislikes her. He already receives schooling from two of the ghosts, so he does not understand why he has to memorize the lists Miss Lupescu teaches him. First she teaches him all the kinds of people:
There are the living and the dead, there are day-folk and night-folk, there are ghouls and mist-walkers, there are the high hunters and the Hounds of God. Also, there are solitary types.
She says that Silas is a solitary type, but she does not say what she is. Next she makes Bod memorize how to call for help in every language in the world.
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
One day Bod fails at a lesson with one of his teachers, Mr. Pennyworth, who wants him to learn to Fade like a ghost. Afterward, Bod climbs an apple tree, trying to grab an apple that is out of reach. A branch breaks, and Bod falls into a corner of the graveyard he knows to be unconsecrated ground, a site where criminals, suicides, and witches are buried. There he meets an ugly girl, Liza Hempstock, who explains that she died by being both drowned and burned. He asks if she is a witch. She says yes and explains that she cursed her whole town as revenge for killing her.
Bod feels sorry for Liza because she does not have her own headstone, but he knows he does not have enough money to buy her one. He climbs down into the...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
One morning, Bod wakes up in the Owens's tomb and hears Mrs. Owens singing a strange song. She tells him she is busy and sends him outside while she cleans up the cobwebs. Around the graveyard, all of the dead are refusing to speak to him. They sing a strange song, “All must dance the Macabray.” Only little Fortinbras Bartleby admits that tomorrow night is a special night, but his family whisks him away from Bod before he can say more.
Silas appears with a set of clothes for Bod to wear. He explains that, now that he is ten, Bod should stop wearing an old gray sheet and get in the habit of dressing like the living. Silas says he does not know about the dance: it is for the dead and the living, and he is...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Far away, in a conference room at a hotel, about a hundred men gather for some kind of “private function.” A sign announces this fact, but it does not include any other information about the group that is gathered there.
Passersby who happen to look into the room cannot figure out who belongs to this group or what they do. It is possible to see that the people inside the room are all men and that they are all wearing black suits. Otherwise they look and sound nothing alike. They have every skin color, every color of hair, every kind of face. They speak English, but their accents reveal that they come from every continent of the world.
At the front of the room, a man lists off accomplishments the men have...
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
One rainy afternoon when Bod is twelve, Silas explains why he lives so differently than most of the living. When Bod learns that his parents’ murderer still wants to kill him, he is not scared. He points out that his friends and family are dead, too. Silas agrees but says:
And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod....If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone.
Bod asks if the man who killed his family is really still alive. Silas says yes but does not explain how he knows. Bod thinks this over and announces that he wants to go to school. He knows all about the dead, about...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
When Bod is fourteen, Silas begins disappearing for long periods. Nobody knows where he goes, and the Owenses are upset when he leaves Bod behind without a guardian to provide food. While Silas is away, Scarlett Amber Perkins moves back to Bod’s town. She remembers little of her childhood there until one day she gets lost and finds the graveyard. She meets a nice man, Mr. Frost, who drives her home and befriends her mother. Slowly Scarlett remembers Bod again, and on another trip to the graveyard she spots him, seeing him even though he is Faded.
Although Bod is a little nervous around Scarlett, she is a welcome change from his ghost friends, who never grow older or change. He tells her about the murder of his family,...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
As Bod grows older, he finds it increasingly difficult to see the ghosts that are his friends and family. One day he goes to visit Alonso Jones, a dead adventurer who tells great stories about visits to Moscow and Alaska, but he does not come out of his grave. Bod is used to having “the Freedom of the Graveyard” and being able to enter and exit graves at will. He tries to stick his head into Alonso’s grave, but he ends up hurting his forehead on a gravestone.
He goes home, and on his way he meets a ghost named Mother Slaughter. She retells the story of Bod’s adoption, which he has heard many times before. Then she makes mysterious comments about growing older, and she says she is glad Bod came to the graveyard....
(The entire section is 424 words.)