Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
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.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2025
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 closely as one of them, the Mayoress, cuts several baskets full of white flowers.
Forgetting that he is not supposed to leave the graveyard, Bod follows the Mayoress into town and watches her pin flowers on the people. He gets one for himself and, hearing strange music, marches to the town square. At midnight, the dead march into the town and dance with the living. Bod dances with many of his friends until the clock strikes midnight again. The dead disappear, and the living go sleepily home.
The next day, the ghosts refuse to admit what happened. Bod keeps pestering them until one of them, Josiah Worthington, says testily that the dead do not discuss the danse macabre with the living. It is the first time Bod has felt very different from his friends and family in the graveyard, and the experience leaves him with many questions. He takes them to Silas, but Silas—who is neither alive nor dead—finds the dance a mystery.
In the middle of The Graveyard Book, the narrative shifts far away from the graveyard to a large group of men in a conference room at the back of a hotel. One man stands at the front of the room making announcements, but this does not seem to be the reason for the gathering. At a table near the front, the man Jack sits arguing with a silver-haired companion. Everyone around them pretends to listen to the speaker at the front, but they are really listening to the argument.
The silver-haired man says Jack has failed. He says Jack was supposed to kill a whole family, including the baby. Ten years have passed, and their group is out of time. They cannot let the boy grow up. Jack argues with the silver-haired man, saying he has clues to follow. The silver-haired man says that time is running out and that Jack must get rid of the boy.
Growing Up in the Graveyard
When Bod turns twelve, he decides he wants to go to school. By now he knows a great deal about being dead, including how to Fade and Frighten, but he does not know about living. He needs to learn because he wants revenge on the man who murdered his family. Silas reluctantly agrees to let Bod go.
At first Bod attends school partly Faded, so that nobody notices him. This works fine until he stands up to a pair of bullies, Nick and Mo. Bod uses his ghost skills of Fading and Frightening, but he draws attention to himself in the process. When Silas finds out, he is furious, and he says that Bod can never go back to school again. Bod shouts at Silas and runs away, but Liza Hempstock comes after him and convinces him not to leave his friends and family without at least saying good-bye. Bod decides to return home, but before he can get there, Mo spots him in town. She makes up a story about Bod committing vandalism, and she reports him to her uncle, who is a police officer. Silas rescues Bod, and afterward they both apologize. Bod admits that he acted reckless in a dangerous world, and Silas admits that it was foolish to try to protect Bod totally from life.
A couple of years later, when Bod is fourteen, Silas begins disappearing for long periods. He does not share his plans or whereabouts with anyone in the graveyard, but he goes off to fight the mysterious organization that wants to kill Bod. In his absence, Scarlett Amber Perkins returns to town with her mother. At first she has little memory of her early childhood in Bod’s town, but one day she gets lost and stumbles into the graveyard where she used to play. As her memories resurface, her friendship with Bod rekindles. Scarlett also befriends a kindly historian, Mr. Frost, who is doing research in the graveyard.
When Scarlett learns about Bod’s history, she goes to the library to research the murders of his parents and sister. She finds a short newspaper article, and she is surprised to learn that the murder took place in the house where Mr. Frost now lives. Mr. Frost does some research too, and he invites Scarlett to come visit him to learn about the information he uncovers. Scarlett brings Bod, and Mr. Frost takes Bod into the attic room he slept in as a baby. There Mr. Frost reveals himself to be the man Jack. He tries to stab Bod, but Bod Fades and escapes, taking Scarlett with him.
The man Jack and four of his friends—all of whom are also named Jack—follow Bod to the graveyard. All of the Jacks want to kill Bod, so Bod hides Scarlett in the Sleer’s barrow and confronts them. He makes one Jack fall into a grave and break his leg. He corners three more by the ghoul-gate, where he pumps their leader for information and learns about an organization called the Jacks of All Trades. This group has existed for thousands of years, and its members want to kill Bod because, thousands of years ago, a prophesy predicted Bod would be their ruin. By now, Bod has realized that Silas is destroying the rest of the Jacks of All Trades, so he knows the prophesy is coming true. He closes the ghoul-gate on the three Jacks.
The last Jack left is the one who killed Bod’s family. He pursues Scarlett to the Sleer’s lair, where he threatens to kill her in order to lure Bod out. Bod knows the Sleer wants a master—which is just a dead person—so he tricks Jack into offering to fill that role. Jack, lured by the sense of power that gives him, falls into the trap. The Sleer kills him and drags him into the barrow’s wall. Bod has won. However, now Scarlett thinks he is a monster. When Silas returns, he erases all her memories of the incident.
Bod continues living in the graveyard for a year or so after he defeats the Jacks of All Trades, but by the time he is fifteen he finds that he cannot always see ghosts anymore. One day people begin saying good-bye to him, and Silas explains that it is time for Bod to go out and experience life. At first, it frightens Bod to realize the graveyard can no longer be his home. However, he soon gets excited. He decides to travel everywhere, meet as many people as he can, and get into and out of trouble. He bids good-bye to his mother at the graveyard gate, and he goes out to join the living world.