Tom's Midnight Garden

by Phillipa Pierce

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At the beginning of the book, Tom's brother is ill with the measles. To protect him from catching the disease, his parents send Tom to stay with his aunt and uncle in their small flat in the city. This is a drastic change for Tom, who is used to spending hours in the garden behind his family's large house. His aunt and uncle do not have a garden; in fact, there is not even a yard. Several scenes take place inside the flat or elsewhere in the spacious old house that has been subdivided into smaller flats, but most of the action takes place in the mysterious garden that appears after dark. This elusive garden, Tom eventually learns, actually existed some fifty years earlier but it has since been paved over and is used to store garbage cans.

Literary Qualities

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Tom's Midnight Garden is a superb work of literature. The captivating style ranges from poetic suggestiveness to colloquial conversations. The descriptions of the garden are concrete and vivid, and the author's keen eye for detail enables her to describe objects, such as the ancient grandfather clock, in a way that gives them a graphic immediacy. As a symbol, the clock's uneven performance suggests both the exactness of timekeeping and the elusiveness of relative time. It is fitting that Mrs. Bartholomew, who spans the past and present, is the one who always winds the clock.

The garden setting, with its strong allusions to the innocence and perfection of the biblical Garden of Eden, gives a mythic dimension to the story. When the tree in the garden is struck by lightning and falls, it symbolizes both the destructive aspect of time and the fall of humans from divine grace and innocence. The gardener, who is named Abel, strengthens the biblical allusiveness of the setting.

One subtle feature of the novel is the subtle change in prose style from the beginning to the end. The final chapters display greater control and more maturity in both content and linguistic cadences. The evolution of style mirrors the maturation of Tom over the course of the narrative. There are moments in the garden when time seems to have stopped, but Tom has been developing in his understanding.

Social Sensitivity

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Pearce shows a genuine concern for the negative aspects of class consciousness. Hatty's aunt is an extreme example; she regards her niece as a charity case and warns her sons against ever marrying her. The aunt's snobbery extends to the gardener, whom she regards as "stupid as a cow in a meadow." While Abel and the cows can see Tom when he visits the garden in the past, the aunt is too insensitive to see him or sense his presence.

Pearce is also aware of destructive changes in society, such as urbanization and the dangers of increased pollution. The image of the dirty pavement filled with dustbins as the modern successor to the idyllic garden is a striking example. Tom's Aunt Gwen attributes the change to the increase in the number of factories.

Pearce addresses prejudice as an adjunct to her theme of youth and age. Those who live in Mrs. Bartholomew's house and rent flats from her—including Tom's aunt and uncle—are prejudiced against her, assuming that she, as an old woman, is by nature disagreeable and difficult to get along with. When it is revealed that she is actually Hatty grown old, the reader realizes how terribly these people have misjudged her. Ironically, the old woman grows much closer to Tom than his own relatives do.

For Further Reference

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Aers, Lesley. 'The Treatment of Time in Four Children's Books." Children's Literature in Education 2 (1970): 69-81. The novel is discussed in the context of other children's books concerned with the theme of time.

Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Based on a lecture, a chapter of this study deals with time fantasies written for young adults.




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