What I love about Ross Montgomery’s books is that they never repeat themselves. Neither does the author ever fawn over the latest ‘thing’ in children’s literature: he ploughs his own furrow. Montgomery’s stories are wacky, deeply serious, odd and quite unexpected. He has penned ghost stories that quite literally terrify (Christmas Dinner of Souls), explored the relationship between an extra-terrestrial and human child (Perijee and Me) and created a Swiftian world of satire set in a caretaker’s cupboard (Max and the Millions). He is a true original and has the knack of a born storyteller.
In his latest, The Midnight Guardians, we are thrown immediately (almost disconcertingly quickly) into an adventure alongside a boy evacuated from London, a Jewish girl disorientated by her experiences of the Kindertransport, and three bizarrely contrasted ‘guardians’ – a waistcoat-wearing badger, a quixotic knight-errant and a shape-shifting Bengal tiger. Whilst The Blitz portends potential global catastrophe, Col, Ruth, and the ‘Midnight Guardians’ undergo a journey of danger across the English countryside to save Col’s sister.
There are shades of The Box of Delights in its Christmas-cosy-deadly-danger atmosphere throughout, although Montgomery goes one step further than Masefield; while he may bring in the characters of folklore, we always feel we are on unstable ground as though the fantasy might fall to pieces at any moment and launch us headlong, irreversibly, into the terrors of war and real life. Montgomery never shies from the sharpness of bald truth, and for this, he is an author-for-children who should be highly regarded: no sugar-coated endings here (or elsewhere, for that matter), just honesty.
So this is not the usual ‘fantasy’ book that kids might read. It plays around the thin lines drawn between a child’s innocent, imaginative world, the darkness of reality, and of growing up too soon. Woven through the book (and forming an important part of the theme of Magic in the book) are warped, almost hallucinatory, visions of English folklore that desperately scrabble for foothold while the horrific shadows of war threaten to snuff them out forever: even the Faery world (a place renowned for its danger and disguise) struggles to win out against the darkness. As the narrative veers from real-life wartime scenes to bizarre escapades with Will-o-the-wisps and shadowy Winter Kings, and then back again, we are party to the juxtaposition of the two worlds; we see through a child’s eyes again; illusion and disillusion take turns to confuse, disarm and surprise.
The clincher for me lies in a near the end of the book where the origins of the three guardians are revealed: this scene, a deeply moving one, shows how Montgomery quite naturally ‘gets’ the sensitivity, toughness, vulnerability and strength of children. And although he loves magic and the freedom that fantasy can afford, it is never used in any lazy or careless way. Rather, The Midnight Guardians is a book that will comfort and challenge readers of Year 5 up and perhaps help them to make some sense of the nether-lands between child and adolescent. It is a book that will at first be read for the swashbuckling adventure, but its truth will haunt the memory long, long after the final page is turned.
Ross Montgomery talks to Nikki Gamble about The Midnight Guardians #InTheReadingCorner podcast
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