Johnny and the Dead

A Novel by Terry Pratchett

Johnny and the Dead

A fantastic story about an unusual boy called Johnny Maxwell, who learns one day that he can see the dead in his local cemetery. ‘It was one of those old cemeteries you got owls and foxes in and sometimes, in the Sunday papers, people going on about Our Victorian Heritage, although they didn’t go on about this one because it was the wrong kind of heritage, being too far from London.’ (Pratchett 2004; 11)

The dead are sort of faded as if seen from further away ‘in some strange direction that had nothing much to do with the normal three’, but get upset about being called ghosts; leading Johnny and his friends to think of some new ‘politically correct’ terms for the dead, like ‘post senior citizens’ ‘breathily challenged and ‘vertically disadvantaged’ (buried). The dead are angry because the cemetery has been sold to developers and they will be dug up and moved, and it’s up to Johnny to stop it.

He hopes to find some famous inhabitants because ‘‘Nearly everyone that died here used to get buried in that cemetery.’ said Johnny. ‘So if we can find someone famous who lived here, and then we can find them in cemetery, then it’s a famous place. There’s a cemetery in London with Karl Marx in it. It’s famous for him being dead in it.’’ (Pratchett 2004; 69) Unfortunately the town of Blackbury is not a place famous people seem to come from.

It’s a wonderful story, which is truly laugh out loud funny in places, written by an author who clearly has forgotten nothing about the trials of childhood and trying to navigate the adult world. Pratchett also really understands the beauty of old cemeteries. ‘Johnny was disappointed it wasn’t spookier. Once you sort of put out of your mind what it was – once you forgot about all the skeletons underground, grinning away in the dark – it was quite friendly. Birds sang. All the traffic sounded a long way off. It was peaceful.’(Pratchett 2004; 11-12)

Their value as places for wildlife and recreation:

‘‘A lot of people come for walks here’ said Johnny.‘I mean, the park’s miles away, and all there is there is grass. But this place has got tones of bushes and plants and trees and, and-‘

‘Environment’ said Yo-Less.

‘And probably some ecology as well’ said Johnny.’ (Pratchett 2004; 44)

He’s also surprisingly philosophical about their value to communities:

‘It all balances, you see. The living have to remember, the dead have to forget.  Conservation of energy.’ (Pratchett 2004; 218)

‘Enjoy looking after the cemetery. They’re places for the living, after all.’ (Pratchett 2004; 223)

The dead themselves are wonderfully drawn characters; from a deep-thinking taxidermist to a sprightly suffragette, and a communist agitator to a directionally-challenged footballer. They really bring the cemetery to life and remind us that history is made up of real people, people just like us.

Overall a wonderful book, with the light-hearted and humorous approach to serious topics that so characterizes much of Pratchett’s early work. I heartily recommend it to readers of all ages.

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