Saturday, January 14, 2012

Midnight is a place by Joan Aiken

So how you can you teach people not to worry?’ ‘You ask some large size questions’ .. ‘You can do it in two ways. … Either you make their lives so much better that they don’t have to worry – or you teach them that worrying doesn’t help, but is only a waste of time.’ … ‘I think both ways together would be best,’ said Anna-Marie. ‘For some people will always be worrying – if only about whether the soup is going to be thick enough or the milk will go sour. So you make them comfortable and you tell them not to unquiet themselves.”

Wisdom like this abounds in Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken. This is another old book from our library collection. We have disposed of this copy but re-reading it over the last two days has convinced me to purchase a new copy. It was first published in 1974 but Joan Aiken is such a skilled writer this book must be considered a classic.

If you are an adult reader who loved Oliver Twist and other novels by Charles Dickens then you will want your child to read Midnight is a Place. The only difficulty for a young reader might be the phonetic spelling Aiken uses for the various English and French accents but I am sure with a little perseverance a young reader will manage these. The Secret Garden is one possible way to introduce this way of writing.

Lucas has lost both his parents and has been sent to live with his guardian Sir Randolph who is a drunken gambler. Sir Randolph fraudulently won the estate of Midnight Court following a wager many years earlier. As the story opens Lucas has been living in this house for two years with only his tutor, Mr Oakapple, for company. It is Luc’s birthday tomorrow and as he looks forlornly out the window he sees a carriage arrive containing a young French girl. Before Lucas can discover why this girl has been sent to Midnight Court or exactly how she is connected to the family, he is taken down to the mill.

The mill is a carpet factory. It is an incredibly dangerous place. “It was not so much that the sights were frightening, though some were that; but they were so strange, so totally unfamiliar compared with anything that he had ever seen before; the shapes and movements of the machines were so black, quick, ugly, or sudden; the noises were so atrociously loud, the heat was so blistering, the smells so sickly, acid or stifling.” The most awful part is the pressing machine. The carpets are spread out under a great metal slab. Very young children work as snatchers. They must quickly run onto the carpet before the press falls to remove any fluff or dirt. Just prior to Lucas’s arrival a young child has been killed.

The grimy town, factories, unions and poverty are reminiscent of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Lyddie by Katherine Patterson or Bread and Roses, too.

Lucas and Anna-Marie do have a special destiny but before this can be fulfilled both will be in great danger. Lucas will be forced to work as a tosher looking for treasure in the underground sewers. These scenes are so vividly explained you will feel the claustrophobia, smell the stench and hear the rats and hogs as they charge after human flesh. Meanwhile Anna-Marie will go to work at the carpet mill where she will experience some of the horrors I just described first hand. Luckily both children will find some true friends and their good sense, kindness towards one another and ingenuity will save the day.

I highly recommend Midnight is a Place. You can read more of the plot here. Also there was a television series.

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