The Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman follows the young boy, who is christened “Nobody Owens” and is raised in the graveyard by his new parents, the doting Master and Mistress Owens, and his solemn guardian Silas. Silas is the only resident of the graveyard able to go out into the world and obtain food and clothing for the boy, but he is also the graveyard resident who is the most truthful and straightforward with young Nobody, also known as “Bod.” The first half of the book is filled with Bod’s adventures as he grows up amongst the tombstones and mausoleums – he makes friends with the ghost of a young witch; he is kidnapped by ghouls who want to turn him into one of their own; he takes part in the eerie tradition of the Danse Macabre, the mysterious dance between the living and the dead that only occurs in the town once every eighty years.
These chapters of Bod’s life are fascinating in and of themselves – Gaiman does an excellent job of creating a paranormal world that is both familiar and unique, and characters that are quite charming for ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the like. Bod is quite comfortable in the world of the dead, and so is the reader – the opening scene of the Dorian family’s murder may have been quite chilling, but many of Bod’s other adventures are PG-rated. We are drawn into the story by the frightening mystery of the man named Jack wielding his sharp, glinting knife – but we remain engaged with the novel because of Bod’s disarming sweetness and desire to understand the graveyard – and the rest of the world – around him. As he bumbles and explores, we realize that this is not only a first-rate paranormal tale, but a well-written coming-of-age novel as well.
The subject of Bod’s maturity becomes the more obvious focus following the Danse Macabre, after which the young boy begins to realize that he is really does not belong in the cemetery, despite the fact that he loves and is loved by the graveyard residents. He is fundamentally different from Master and Mistress Owens, Silas and all the others – he has the potential to go out into the world and alter the course of events, to experience change, to truly live. Bod cannot remain in the graveyard forever – he must join the society of the living.
It is at that point, then, that he and his guardian Silas must deal with the fact that there is still someone who wants to kill him. If Bod is ever to live on his own, outside of the graveyard, the threat must be eliminated. The residents of the graveyard do not know the identity of the man Jack, nor why he was after the Dorian family and the baby boy, so Silas and some of Bod’s other protectors go off in search of answers. But while Silas is gone, the man named Jack and his cohorts come closer and closer to the graveyard, closer to discovering Body’s hiding place of the past thirteen years. Ultimately, Bod must face some of Jack’s associates himself if he is to become an adult, capable of taking care of himself.
As Bod slowly grows from a young toddler to a thoughtful, clever young man, the paranormal elements of the story do not grow any less creative and interesting – yet the focus of the story shifts to Bod himself. His fear, confusion and determination to face down both his school-yard enemies and his parents’ murderer seem realistic despite the fantastic world in which he lives; his desire for human companionship is touching. I love the way that Gaiman develops both his paranormal world and Bod's emotions with subtle language; his descriptions are engrossing and Bod's plight seems particularly vivid and realistic due to the craft of the author. I have never read anything else by Gaiman, but after twice through this novel, I’m eager to pick up some of his other books.