THE MIDNIGHT CHILDREN, by Dan Gemeinhart
Dan Gemeinhart is a creator of vividly believable worlds animated by whimsy and all the stuff of childhood fantasy, by kids and teenagers untethered from adult rules who make surprisingly grown-up decisions. He is also unusually obsessed with grief and loss.
It was my 10-year-old’s turn to read aloud when our family reached the climactic scene in Gemeinhart’s extraordinary previous book, “The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise,” when all the losses converge. I won’t spoil it except to say that my daughter read with bewilderment as my wife and I cried buckets. Gemeinhart had taken us to a place (utterly vulnerable, utterly exposed) that Hollywood producers could only dream of. We felt cleansed, purified, grateful. This writer had gotten deep into us, and transformed us.
“The Midnight Children,” his sixth novel, is light by Gemeinhart’s standards — readers will probably be able to keep their tears in check — but weighty nonetheless. It’s about a sweet but friendless boy named Ravani who builds birdhouses by himself after school and is bullied mercilessly by Donnie Carter, the resident horror show in the town of Slaughterville. The town’s economy revolves around the local abattoir, and all its streets are named accordingly. Ravani lives on Offal Road.
Everything begins to brighten when a mysterious truck pulls up to the abandoned house across the street from Ravani’s and seven children — unaccompanied by adults — get out and take up residence. Among them is Virginia, a girl “about his own age, 12 or 13,” whose hair, “tied back with black ribbon, looked silver in the moonlight.” So begins a story of friendship, belonging and an annual boat race down Carcass Creek. Ravani and his new friends become a kind of family while evading an orphan catcher known only as the Hunter in a book that is equal parts adventure story and group bildungsroman.
Why are seven kids living together with no parents? What’s in the 100-year-old book they take with them each time they move? Is “the magic” they claim as their guide and protector real? The answers have to do with what we are willing to believe — about kids’ ingenuity and steadfast love, and about what grown-ups are capable of doing to and for them.
Gemeinhart’s lesson, which he emphasizes again and again, is that “this story, like all stories, is about choices.” Each of the kids discovers a special power — Virginia is a living lie detector; Colt can forge any kind of paperwork; Beth does perfect impressions; Annabel, “only 5 or 6,” can pick any lock — and, looking out for one another, they make a world of relative safety and considerable joy, a Neverland or Pleasure Island where kids turn into not donkeys and not quite adults but young people capable of carrying the true, heavy weight of one another’s lives. Ravani falls headlong into their world and learns what it means to protect and be protected, to care about someone else more than himself, to take decisive action when the stakes are life and death.
Most important, Gemeinhart offers a way of talking to middle grade readers about the world in which they are growing up: The stakes are mortal; we do need to look out for one another; everything is not OK. And yet Gemeinhart reminds us that “things don’t always have to be the way they’ve always been.” These children become the heroes of their story because the world is closing in on them. Our kids could learn a lot from this bunch. So could we.
Craig Morgan Teicher’s fourth book of poems, “Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey,” was published last year.
THE MIDNIGHT CHILDREN, by Dan Gemeinhart | 352 pp. | Henry Holt | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12