Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I was sick on Mother's Day. I mean waking-up-at-midnight-not-able-to-breathe sick, lying-in-bed-with-a-fever sick, and not-even-wanting-anyone-to-bring-me-anything-to-drink sick. And while I was lying there, becatted and with the life of the household going on around me, I read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Because it seemed appropriate when I felt like death.

I'd already read the short story "The Witch's Headstone," in Gaiman's short story collection entitled M is for Magic. That story comprises one of the chapters of The Graveyard Book, which tells most of the story of Bod's childhood, including how and why he got his unusual name ("Bod" is short for "Nobody"). I usually love reading full-length stories that were originally based on short stories (Orson Scott Card's The Lost Boys was one of the first of that kind that I knew about and loved), and this book is no exception.

Although I was absolutely thrilled with the illustration on the first page-- "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife" and you SEE the hand with the knife--I didn't care of the rest of the illustrations. If anything, I found them distracting. When I'm reading, I form pictures in my mind, and they were nothing like the illustrations, which consequently struck me as cheesy and wrong. But as my regular readers can tell, I'm not a big fan of the visual. I think text speaks for itself. Give me the thousand words over the one picture any day. So even though I loved reading illustrated stories to my children when they were young (especially Dr. Seuss and William Joyce), I'm not a fan of illustrations in general. I have never cared for comic books or animated movies. Take my criticism of the illustrations, therefore, with those big grains of salt.

From the moment that the ghostly Mrs. Owens refuses to give up the living baby that has come into the graveyard, I was completely hooked by this improbable story. Instead of "it takes a village," in this story "it takes a graveyard" to raise a child, and his adventures and what he learns from the dead folks makes for an oddly old-fashioned style of story-telling.

Not all of the story is aimed simply at younger readers. One of my favorite parts is when young Bod comes to a dead poet, Nehemiah Trot, for advice, thinking "really...if you couldn't trust a poet to offer sensible advice, who could you trust?" He asks Nehemiah to tell him about revenge:

"'Dish best served cold,' said Nehemiah Trot. 'Do not take revenge in the heat of the moment. Instead, wait until the hour is propitious. There was a Grub Street hack named O'Leary--and Irishman, I should add--who had the nerve, the confounded cheek to write of my first slim volume of poems, A Nosegay of Beauty Assembled for Gentlemen of Quality, that if was inferior doggerel of no worth whatsoever, and that the paper it was written on would have been better used as--no, I cannot say. Let us simply agree that it was a most vulgar statement.'
'But you got your revenge on him?' asked Bod, curious.
'On him and on his entire pestilent breed! Oh, I had my revenge, Master Owens, and it was a terrible one. I wrote, and had published, a letter, which I nailed to the doors of the public houses in London where such low scribbling folk were wont to frequent. And I explained that, given the fragility of the genius poetical, I would henceforth write not for them, but only for myself and posterity, and that I should, as long as I lived, publish no more poems--for them! Thus I left instructions that upon my death my poems were to be bburied with me, unpublished, and that only when posterity realized my genius, realized that hundreds of my verses had been lost--lost!--only then was my coffin to be disinterred, only then could my poems be removed from my cold dead hand, to finally be published to the approbation and delight of all. It is a terrible thing to be ahead of your time.'
'And after you died, they dug you up, and they printed the poems?'
'Not yet, no. But there is still plenty of time. Posterity is vast.'
'So...that was your revenge?'
'Indeed. And a mightily powerful and cunning one at that!'
'Ye-es,' said Bod, unconvinced.

Even with such help, Bod manages to learn right from wrong, and wisdom from foolishness. At the end of the story he's about fifteen years old, and one of the dead folks that's helped raise him, "Mother Slaughter," (whose headstone is so old that some of the letters no longer show up and has puzzled visitors for years as to why it says "laughter") says to him:
"I still feels like I done when I was a tiny slip of a thing, making daisy chains in the old pasture. You're always you, and that don't change, and you're always changing, and there's nothing you can do about it."
Maybe I liked that passage merely because my father once said something similar to me, about looking in the mirror and wondering who that old man was, when he still felt like he did when he was younger. But there are other passages like it, and they raise the story above the level of a simple children's tale.

It might even be fun to read when you're not sick. Is there a certain kind of book you tend to read when you're sick? I usually tend more towards the slow literary kind of book when I'm not feeling well, but this time I just picked up what was beside my bed.

1 comment:

heidenkind said...

This sounds like a great book! I already have it my TBR pile but haven't gotten to it yet.

I think if you can actually enjoy a book while you're sick and have a fever, that book has got to be good.