Did you ever hear of Mickey, how he … fell through the dark, out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight into the light of the night kitchen?”
Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is one of those masterpieces I revisit in adulthood. Its rhythm and phrasing were tattooed on my young mind. There’s a recording of the text by the late actor James Gandolfini. Even though it was only a few years ago that I heard this, and I’m a Gandolfini fan, the petulant child in my wanted to protest, “You’re reading it all wrong!”
The appeal of In the Night Kitchen isn’t merely sentimental whimsy, but Sendak’s complicit understanding of what our parents wouldn’t admit. He encourages us to embrace the (unspoken) fear of night-time and face uncanny and surreal happenings in the dark.
Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy. We sentimentalize children, but they know what’s real and what’s not. They understand metaphor and symbol. If children are different from us, they are more spontaneous. Grown-up lives have become overlaid with dross.” Bernard Holland.
I think of the book when in hospital. Suspended in insomnia in a seventh floor isolation room, looking over the ‘night kitchen’ of Dunedin North. Like Mickey meeting the bakers, I’m alert to the labour that continues under focused beams of light while most of us sleep. There’s that that must go on. And fear. Hospital is discomforting no matter your age, so I ask: could In the Night Kitchen be read as an allegory for the patient experience?