IN The Gathering Room, Colby Rodowsky has pulled
off a difficult feat: She has set a novel for children-- but not only for children, I assure you--in a cemetery without being funereal. (Those who remember Peter eagle's A Fine and Private Place, another combination of poignance and whimsy, will be pleased to discover a worthy successor.) The Gathering Room takes place in the present . . . but not exactly. We know there's a McDonald's somewhere in the city, but it exists far away from the twilit zone of Edgemount Cemetery, where Serena and Ned and their son Mudge have made a safe haven for themselves.
Mudge, you say? An odd name for a modern boy, yet that's not the only Victorian touch. For Mudge's aunt, whose visit to Edgemount is the turning point of the story, is called Ernestus Stokes. And a character more like Charles Dickens' Miss Betsey Trotwood there never was.
Aunt Ernestus is Ned's older sister, who raised him. Having lost contact with him and his family, she is determined to reinstate the relationship. The break came when Ned, a lawyer, fled his former life in grief over the tragic death of his closest friend, an assassinated politician. Now he is the caretaker at Edgemount, and he and Serena hardly ever leave the grounds, except for food and library books. Mudge, whom Ned teaches himself, doesn't venture beyond the borders of the cemetery at all; it's the only home he's known.
When he's not in the gatehouse which arches over the road (the left-hand side and the archway room are their quarters, the right-hand side is "the gathering room," where mourners used to meet), Mudge is out among the grave plots, conversing with Edgemount's residents. There's the Butterfly Lady who recites poetry and tries "to catch her reflection in the side of a granite obelisk." There's the Captain, who died in 1814 from an accidental wound inflicted by one of his own men, and Jenkins, the culprit, who died ignominiously of boils three years later. Mudge mediates their quarrel, which is in its second century, and acts as a go-between.
Then there's Little Dorro (further shades of Dickens) who was run over by a milk-wagon, and Frieda, ("After Life's Fitful Fever She Sleeps Well. Her Back Was Twisted But Never Her Smile"), who worries about vandals. These are Mudge's friends, and only the coming of Aunt Ernestus, with its whiff of the outside and of his father's own, more normal boyhood, brings to Mudge intimations of the fragility of his private nether world.
Sulkily, Mudge resists Aunt Ernestus' blandishments: pancakes and brownies and caramel sticky buns and her special blueberry syrup. But Serena and Ned, however reluctantly, know that the time has come to rejoin the real world. In their seclusion--not really a living death, more like a suspension--the peace of the dead has given them succor, made no demands, allowed healing to go on. When he complains about his aunt's interference in what he sees as their total harmony, Serena reminds him, ''Remember, Mudge, how I told you that Edgemount was never meant to be a permanent thing. Maybe, just maybe, it has served its purpose."
It is hard to sustain a plot with one foot in fantasy and the other in the more mundane atmosphere of galoshes and seed catalogues. Rodowsky wisely realized that the edges between the two are blurred in any good book of this sort, and her execution of this realization is nearly perfect. Mudge wanders back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead, always himself, always confident. In this way he can be seen as a descendant of Lewis Carroll's Alice, Charles Kingsley's water baby, Tom, and all the children of L. Frank Baum's Oz. While the problems he faces are more personal and emotional --his father's breakdown and recovery, the family's reentry--it is certainly no accident that The Gathering Room has a distinctly 19th-century feel. One of Mudge's favorite books, in fact, is George Macdonald's At the Back of the North Wind, in which a young boy's quest ends in death, rather than, like Mudge's, begins with it.
Mudge does not know he is on a quest. But Rodowsky does, and she lets him find his own way to what lies outside the Edgemount gates. Though this is a new book, it has a timelessness about it; where it's really set is in that land known as Classic Children's Literature.