Book Review Saturday – ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’

This book is one I’ve wanted to read for years. I kept forgetting about it until the other day when my lovely husband handed me a copy. ‘I thought you might like this,’ he said. ‘It sounded right up your street.’

Well. They do say that when a spouse speaks their affection through books, they’re worth holding on to, don’t they?

Okay, they don’t. But they should.

Image: whytebooks.com

Image: whytebooks.com

‘Goodnight Mister Tom’, by Michelle Magorian, was originally published in 1981. It won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, an amazing feat for a first novel, and has been a classic of children’s literature ever since. It tells the story of William (‘Willie’, later ‘Will’) Beech, a London child evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II, and his relationship with Tom Oakley, the man with whom he is placed.

From the get-go, I loved Tom. He’s depicted as the typical ‘gruff’ countryman, keeps himself to himself, doesn’t bother anyone and nobody bothers him – but beneath it all you know that his neighbours respect and like him. He reacts with thinly veiled irritation when Willie is deposited on his doorstep, fresh off the London train, but almost instantly we see his annoyance begin to melt. He has the instincts of a father, and he sees straight away that Willie has been terribly abused by someone in his past. Without having to be told, Tom knows how to take care of Willie. He is patient, and he is understanding, and he is gentle. He is kind, and generous, and he gives the child space to be himself – he gives him a chance to come to trust him, and he never forces the issue.

It is one of the most beautiful ‘parent’-child relationships I’ve ever read. Often, when reading this book, I was moved to tears by Tom’s understanding of what it is to be a child, and how easily he placed himself in Willie’s shoes. It made me wish that every child had a ‘Tom’ – a parent or guardian who treated them with consistent kindness and patient love, allowing them to be who they are and express who they are without judgement.

Just a minute. I’m getting weepy again. Here, have a picture:

John Thaw (Tom) and Nick Robinson (Willie) in the 1998 movie adaptation of the book. Image: kingsroad.learningspaces.net

John Thaw (Tom) and Nick Robinson (Willie) in the 1998 movie adaptation of the book.
Image: kingsroad.learningspaces.net

Right. Anyway. As the story progresses, we learn a bit more about Tom, and his own painful past. We find out why he keeps his world small and why he has locked away all the love in his heart for so long, and we watch it slowly start to re-emerge as he and Willie grow closer. We see Willie learn how to run and laugh and play like an ordinary child, and we see him make friends – best friends – for the first time. It is through showing us all the things Willie has never experienced before that Magorian expresses the depth of the abuse he’s suffered – and that abuse is like nothing else I’ve ever read.

Willie’s life with his mother comes back into play in the latter part of the book, after she summons him back to London. He has been with Mister Tom for over six months, and he has transformed from a sick, weak, bruised and broken child into a strong, healthy boy. He is so changed that, when he arrives back in London, his mother does not recognise him. In the character of Mrs Beech, Magorian has created one of the most compellingly evil fictional mothers; we see her belittle Willie, and we see her anger when she realises that Tom has not been beating Willie regularly, as she would have wished. We see her determination to ‘break’ him once again, undoing all the good work Tom and the people of Little Weirwold have been doing since Willie arrived among them. We see, in fact, that Mrs Beech is profoundly mentally ill, and has taken out her own frustration and anger on her son.

Tom, meanwhile, has had a premonition that all is not well with Willie. A month goes by, and there is no word from the child despite several letters having been sent to him. Suspicious and uneasy, Tom – who has never ventured beyond his own village – finds his way to London, and eventually to Deptford, where Willie lives. He persuades a policeman to break down the door of the Beechs’ seemingly-abandoned flat – and, inside, they find Willie in the worst possible condition.

During this part of the story, I had to put the book down once or twice because I couldn’t deal with what I was reading. The sheer brutality of what Willie has endured is shocking, even to me; I thought I was fairly worldly, but this book showed me I am not. It was hard going, and I wondered how I would have coped with it as a younger reader. I think children would react entirely differently to this sort of thing, though: it’s almost like something out of a fairy tale, something unreal. It’s only to an adult reader that the true horror reveals itself.

Suffice it to say, I wept as I read the final twenty or thirty pages of this book. As well as Willie and Tom’s story, a character meets their death (unnecessarily, I thought, but that’s just me) which had me in a heap on the floor, and the conclusion of the story wrenched every last drop of emotion from my soul.

So, the story is wonderful.

I'm fine - honestly... Image: drhealth.md

I’m fine – honestly…
Image: drhealth.md

However, I did have a problem with the writing. Specifically, there’s a lot of showing, as opposed to telling, in this book, and it is – despite not being the heftiest of tomes – too long. Lots of what happens is not vital to the plot, and pages of pointless description and minutiae take away from the book’s power, for me. Having said that, while the style of writing is irritating at times, it shines when Magorian is writing dialogue. At that, and at characterisation, she absolutely excels. In any case, the sheer heft of the story, and the profound effect it had on me, more than make up for the perceived shortcomings in style. Perhaps, after all, there were different ‘rules’ or expectations from children’s books in 1981 in terms of how they were written, and it was Magorian’s first book.

But what a first book.

This one is highly recommended, for those of you who haven’t read it already. Just be prepared to weep, is all I’ll say.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Go read!

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