“I’m nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?”–Emily Dickinson
Nobody Owens, Bod for short, is a young boy whose parents and foster parents are dead. The difference between these two sets of figures are that the latter continue to raise him in the graveyard where they have resided since their demise hundreds of years ago, whereas the former, who have only recently stepped into the light (or, rather, were gruesomely forced into it), have presumably gone on to another unidentified graveyard elsewhere.
Neil Gaiman’s cheerfully twisted, dreamlike, and unexpectedly warm children’s tale, The Graveyard Book, resets Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in the present day English countryside and replaces its eponymous jungle with a similarly eponymous cemetery. Kipling’s Mowgli was raised by wolves, along with all of the other animals of the forest. Gaiman’s Bod is raised by the denizens of the graveyard, namely ghosts, with other supernatural creatures thrown in for good measure, such as a werewolf, and a firm, reserved yet loving guardian whose species is never identified and yet who is described as being neither alive nor dead and seemingly unable to go out in the sunlight. Mowgli was beset upon by the mischievous monkeys. Bod is beset upon by ghouls. Mowgli’s parents were killed by the fearsome tiger, Shere Khan, a spectre-like villain that continues to haunt him as he ages. Bod is also stalked by his parents’ cruelly efficient killer–a person known for the majority of the book as simply, “the man, Jack.”
The Graveyard Book unfolds as a series of short stories or vignettes about Bod’s childhood, growing up, surrounded by the dead. In each, he learns a valuable lesson that causes him to mature ever so slightly more, making the novel an engaging twist on the bildungsroman. This young boy is taught how to live by people who are alive no longer.
It is one of the book’s cleverest conceits that, since it is set in Britain, the ghosts that populate the graveyard stretch all the way back to the Roman Empire or perhaps even earlier. This means that Bod is constantly surrounded by spirits from a vast array of widely divergent time periods, all of whom have their own time-subjective perspective on things such as how a child should be raised and what he should be taught. For example, when Bod is particularly naughty, Mr. Owens spanks him, even though our narrator reminds us that this is not accepted behavior today in child-rearing. When being taught lessons by his laconic guardian, Silas, the enigmatic man has to repeatedly correct Bod’s grammar because he is speaking in the slang or idioms of past centuries.
This humorous instance underlines one of the book’s main themes–the difference between the living and the dead. In the universe of The Graveyard Book, after one dies, he or she remains forever as a ghost in the graveyard in which he or she was buried. Since Bod grows up with no other living people around him, he doesn’t at first understand what is so great about being alive, and what would be wrong with being dead, like his foster parents and all his young friends with whom he plays. The answer, he learns, is that people who are dead are never going to expire, but they are never going to evolve, either. Each of the ghosts in the graveyard is exactly the same as the day he died. Someone alive is full of potential and possibilities, whereas someone dead will always be what she always was, with no hope for development or change.
Gaiman thusly weaves what may one day go down in children’s literature as one of the most comforting stories about life and death ever written. In it, he assures children that death is nothing to fear. Yes, as said in the final season of Six Feet Under, “Everything…Everyone…Everywhere…Ends,” but it is an essential part of the life cycle, and if he is to be believed, you will spend the rest of eternity afterwards with the people you love in a peaceful environment. On the other hand, he also warns that death isn’t something you want to happen too soon, in case this tale of fun and excitement in the graveyard might entice Bod to want to remain in the graveyard forever, or for child readers to want to do so, as well. Everyone has their brief time to shine in the sun and make everything of their lives they possibly can, and only once that is done, does one finally end up in the world of the graveyard, a place that may be magical but is not nearly as magical as being alive.
True, the opening scene of the novel is very grim. Far grimmer, in fact, that one might expect in a novel targetted for children. Countless children’s stories, however, begin with the death of parents or family members. The scary and sad scene that opens the book is but a necessary evil, for lack of a better phrase. It not only confronts the reader head-on with the fact that death is not always pleasant, but it also brings Our Little Hero to where he needs to be in order for the plot to unfold. It is also greatly assuaged by said unfolding. The baby Bod encounters a slew of friendly ghosts only moments after his life is almost snuffed out by the man, Jack.
Another aspect of the book that practically destines it to become a classic is the tenderly depicted mentor/student relationship between Bod and Silas, a man who technically may not be his father or his foster father, even, but who represents the closest bond with another person Bod will come to know during his formative years. If by the end of the book, Bod has become a well-adjusted adult and even hero ready to be integrated into the outside world of the living, he has Silas to thank.
The Graveyard Book has so many wonderful moments, it would be impossible to list them all, nor would I want to spoil any of the myriad of delightful surprises awaiting you if you have not yet read it, but I would like to mention one chapter, “Danse Macabre,” which features particularly gorgeous writing. It is about the one day of the year when the dead can leave their final resting place and interact with the living. The climactic event is described with such evocative, delicate grace that it nearly drew my breath away.
Neil Gaiman has crafted a true masterpiece in The Graveyard Book, the sort of story that will lure children back again and again into a mysterious world of adventure and enchantment, even as adults will notice how subtly he manages to introduce the young to themes of life, death, and burgeoning adulthood. Most impressively, by the end, he pulls off the neat trick of making adulthood seem every bit as wondrous to a child as the games and pursuits of youth.
In Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie wrote the strangely dark sentence, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” In the Steven Spielberg film sequel, Hook, the adult Peter amends it by replacing the word “die” with “live.” Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book unites both of these sentiments into one triumphant whole.
This review first appeared, in slightly altered form, on Rob Will Review.