The angel gave a clue.

One book that I ordered some time ago and that has been sitting on my shelf — I really should write down where I get these book ideas — is the children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. My paperback copy says on the cover, “60th Anniversary Edition.”  I took to it bed the other night to accompany me instead of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; it’s conveniently lightweight and small.

The story is about an English boy Tom who is quarantined (who knew?) at his aunt and uncle’s house for a couple of weeks when his brother gets the measles. Though he starts out terribly bored in the small flat, he soon begins to have experiences that take him back in history, in a vast garden with a charming playmate. He keeps his nighttime adventures secret, but wonders what is going on; is his friend a ghost?

Toward the end of the story she shows him a Biblical inscription on a grandfather clock, which prompts the children to find a Bible and read the quote in context. They read about a rainbow, angel feet like pillars of fire, and the voices of seven thunders. At the breakfast table next morning Tom asks, “What is time?” It was a gently progressing mystery until that point, when the metaphysical questions intensified:

“Of course,” said Uncle Alan, “it used to be thought…” and Tom listened attentively, and sometimes he seemed to understand, and then, sometimes he was sure he didn’t. “But modern theories of Time,” said Uncle Alan, “the most modern theories…” and Tom began wondering if theories went in and out of fashion, like ladies’ dresses, and then suddenly knew that he couldn’t be attending, and wrenched his mind back, and thought again that he was understanding… and then again was sure he wasn’t, and experienced a great depression.

“I’ve heard a theory, too,” said Tom, while his uncle paused to drink some more tea. “I know an angel — I know of an angel who said that, in the end, there would be Time no longer.”

“An angel!” His uncle’s shout was so explosive that a great deal of tea slopped down his tie, and he was made even angrier to have to mop it up. “What on earth have angels to do with scientific theories?” Tom trembled, and dared not explain that this was more than a theory; it was a blazing, angelic certitude.

More and more clues are added, as Tom’s desperation grows. He does not want to leave the house and go home again, and thinks at one point that he may have figured out Time enough to make it work the way he wants. I won’t tell you the happy ending to this fun story, but I will say it has a lot to do with an old lady’s dreams. And of course, the mystery of Time is not ever truly solved. It’s metaphysical!

Matthias Gerung, 1500-1570

15 thoughts on “The angel gave a clue.

  1. A fun reminder of a read from way back then. Like ‘At the back of the North Wind’, I am not sure that children’s stories from then are all that suited to modern children of the same intended age. Their appeal might have shifted to older children. What do you think? I certainly enjoyed the North Wind story more as an adult than I ever did as a young girl.

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    1. The situation as I see it is that the (large and vague) category of Modern Children do not have the attention spans of previous generations. Research has shown that a preference for images and the kind of activity that brains do online changes the way the brain works. The brain of a child of even 30 years ago who watched a lot of TV would be different from one who spent time outdoors or being read to, or lost in their own reading. The children of today may not have the patience for a story that moves slowly.

      Rumer Godden’s children’s stories are the best example I have of those; I have been amazed at how two children I read them to were engrossed for 40 minutes, with no pictures. One of them was an autistic boy whose mother said that he rarely would sit that long, and I wondered if it was just that slow pace that helped him to attend.

      There’s also the subject matter, which you are probably referring to. Through homeschooling I’ve been acquainted with many children who from an early age were introduced to books like George MacDonald’s and others from previous centuries (I’m not talking about the didactic and moralistic type of story, but the genre that includes fairy tales), and who were also connected by their church history and traditions, and maybe by their own thought lives and activities — again, without TV and video games — to children of previous generations.

      But North Wind, yes, I also enjoyed that more on the second reading when I was a 20 years older adult! And someone has said that any children’s story that is worth anything is worth reading as an adult. People at our book group asked about North Wind, “Is this written for children?” I still have a blog post about that in the works!

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      1. This is so interesting! I think it still makes a difference if an adult takes the time to read longer books to children with love and care. In this way my two youngest grandchildren (6 and 4) have been exploring a number of ‘classics’ in a serial form by being read to every evening. These books do not have flashy pictures, but I think they benefit from being held close, hearing their mother’s voice, and from being able to ask questions or pass comment as the story progresses.

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      2. I agree completely! I read somewhere that when a child is being read to, their listening brains are being trained in a necessary pre-reading skill, to string longer and longer sentences and thoughts and sequences of ideas together; this gives them a head start on reading themselves, and of course, on reading comprehension and thinking through their own questions. I must look and see if I have that article, and find out if I remembered correctly what it said – ha! I may have to come back here and clarify this info.

        The cozy scene you describe was my chief method of teaching my children in their early years of homeschooling. We would sit on the couch and read for hours, history, nature study, stories of all sorts, and I would use the text to talk about lots of things. Your little grandchildren are so blessed to have parents and grandparents to read to them. When I visit mine, or when they are here, they have learned that reading together is one of my favorite activities.

        I asked my daughters if they remembered me reading At the Back of the North Wind to them, and one of them said she couldn’t remember the story, but she had a good memory of it, “Probably because you were reading it to us.” I thought that was interesting.

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      3. I just realized that I didn’t say anything about age range, which another friend asked me about more specifically. The whole idea of time travel and historical periods would be beyond the understanding of very young children, and of course the question about whether one or another character is a ghost might not be grasped by a younger child. But in families, we often read to all the children at once, and if the particular title is beyond the interest of the younger ones, because too many aspects of it don’t make sense yet, they might just tune out and do something else. Good books often take a child of any age into a different world in one way or another, so they will be encountering things they don’t understand, and will come away richer for the experience.

        By the way, the subject of ghosts doesn’t carry any spookiness in this story; there is never any feeling of the occult, nor a conclusion about whether ghosts are real or not. Tom seems to have left that concept behind when he found out how that fantasy world’s time travel worked.

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  2. This is my absolute favourite book! When anyone asks if I can recommend a children’s book, this is the one I recommend, time and time again!

    Hattie’s garden is my Grandparents’ garden in my head so whenever I read it, I think of their garden!

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  3. I’m in agreement with Lorrie. My list of books to request from the library is getting very long. I do hope libraries are allowed to open soon.

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  4. How uncanny!! Just a few days ago I also finished reading “Tom’s Midnight Garden” for the first time, as I am on a Y/A, children’s “time slip” book roll. It is a wonderfully satisfying book, equally as satisfying as the more gossamer “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley (a childhood favourite of mine), although the true historical backstory loosely interwoven is brutal. However, my all-time favourite is Ruth Park’s gritty, moving, and absolutely brilliant “Playing Beatie Bow”. I am in awe of her prowess as an underrated author (she doesn’t seem to be all that well-known outside Australia.) I’m currently reading Penelope Lively’s “The House in Norham Gardens”, which has a completely different feel to it.

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  5. Gretchen, So especially delighted to have dropped in on this post! What a sweet story, and I must admit I’m curious enough to search out the book.

    It also reminds me that you are my very best resource for children’s books. As you think if possibilities please send them along, but at your leisure as mine are only twinkles in my eyes thus far!

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    1. Start with C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, and original versions of old fairy tales, and if a child of say, nine or ten doesn’t want to just read those over and over, you might give him Midnight Garden. 😉

      Also, you can search my posts for the tag “children’s books” and find some ideas, and my often strong opinions on the subject of literature for the young. ❤

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  6. Oh, interesting! And someone reminded me to visit some of George MacDonald’s “children’s stories”. My kindle is packed with them. Like she said, they are probably more suited to us older folks these days. 🙂

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