I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland. I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear. I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane has similar holes in his memories. He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago. Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond behind their farmhouse. He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.
Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know. As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad. So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books. What’s wrong with that? His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family. He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that. Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything. How old these women really are or or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world. Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult. Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond. Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts. Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys? Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy?
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats. The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality. Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.