There are everyone’s favourite orphans: Harry Potter, Anne Shirley. Oliver Twist. Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Magic, or love, saves them all. It never seems to get old, insofar as fiction is concerned.
I do wonder—from what stems our obsession with fictional orphans, who are always wise beyond their years? It’s a legitimate question. Why do we love them so?
That another orphan should appear in The Night Garden to be saved by love and magic isn’t a surprise. Franny’s orphanhood maybe doesn’t have such a benign cause as some others—although magic destroyed plenty of parents, circumstances from which arise heroic orphan stories. And Franny’s story is not really about her orphan-ness at all. She was adopted by the lovely and sweet Old Tom and Sina as a baby (she’s now 12) and they live a relatively charmed existence on Vancouver Island in Sooke during the Second World War. Old Tom gardens, Sina sculpts and Franny writes. Old Tom’s gardens are deliciously themed: the Italian garden, the herb garden and so on. And the titular night garden, entry to which is expressly barred because it is said the garden will make one wish come true and that wish cannot be undone.
All is peaceful, despite the presence of soldiers on their land, until their neighbour Crying Alice shows and deposits her three children with Sina, Old Tom and Franny. Crying Alice is sure her husband, who works for the air force, is up to no good and she has to go to Comox to check on him. It’s 1945. It’s not a day trip. She’s gone for long enough that the balance is upset at home and the youngest of her children gets tangled up in some trouble with his absent father, who may indeed be about to cause an international incident with Canada’s best airplane.
Author Polly Horvath has written a cozy, nostalgic, romanticised environment, safe from the horrors of Europe at the time. It exists in the time and out of it too. Her world is protected by its own kind of magic—our desire to imagine place left in the world where life is simple and sweet, where strangers and neighbours can be trusted and problems can be solved with a wish. Where orphans have homes and families that love them. Where technology hasn’t quite destroyed our ability to live quiet, happy lives.
As Old Tom says: “It’s a slippery slope … From radios to flush toilets to electricity. Then before you know it, you’re living life secondhand. You don’t talk to people face-to-face anymore because the people on the radio are so much more interesting. And you don’t play the piano and sing together of an evening ‘cause you’ve got the radio to do it for you. And then suddenly you start to think that unless you’re sitting in that chair at six o’clock every night listening to the radio, you’re missing out on something.”
How adorably quaint.