Tag Archives: World War II

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!

Book Review Saturday – ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’

I’ve been aware of the writer and illustrator Judith Kerr for many years, knowing her only as the creator of the wonderful classics ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ and the ‘Mog’ series. Recently I watched a TV documentary about her life and career and realised that there was far more to this author than met the eye.

Judith Kerr Image: theguardian.com

Judith Kerr
Image: theguardian.com

In this – her 90th year – one of the ways in which Ms Kerr’s life’s achievement is being celebrated is by republishing some of her books for older readers in special commemorative editions. One of these books is ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,’ the first in a collection of stories about her youth which has become known as ‘Out of the Hitler Time.’ The other books in this series are ‘The Other Way Round’ and ‘A Small Person Far Away,’ which I hope to get to as soon as possible.

I had no idea until a few weeks ago that Judith Kerr was German by birth; she had always seemed quintessentially English, to me. I never realised that she is the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual who had feared for his safety, and that of his family, because of his avowed anti-Nazi stance, and I never realised that, in 1933 – on the eve of the election which would bring Hitler to power – she and her family fled Germany for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving all they had ever known behind. Judith Kerr went on to emigrate to England, where she has had a lengthy and successful career, first at the BBC and then as an author and illustrator, but it is in this book that we learn of how things were for her before she found the security of a safe and settled life. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is the story of a girl named Anna and her brother Max, who – along with their writer father and loving mother – are forced to leave Germany in 1933 because they are Jewish.

It is Judith Kerr’s own story, to a large extent. How she manages to tell it in such a matter-of-fact, clear-eyed way, then, is beyond me.

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book. Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book.
Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

Judith Kerr described in the documentary how her own son, as a child, watched the film ‘The Sound of Music’ and felt satisfied that he now knew exactly how things had been for his mother as a girl. The highly unrealistic, melodramatic escape from the Nazis as portrayed in the film pleased the young boy, but it did not please his mother. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is her attempt to show her son how it felt to be German and Jewish in the 1930s, and how it really was to see your father bent double with worry and stress, and your mother working hard to keep the family together, and you – as a girl of nine, turning ten – struggling to understand why all this was happening.

For a reader like me, who cut her teeth on ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ and ‘The Silver Sword,’ this book is not what I expected. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is primarily a book about a family, and its efforts to stay safe and united in the face of great evil. We are introduced to Anna as she walks home from school one snowy day with her friend Elsbeth, and we meet her family – her genial, intelligent and gentle father, her ladylike and refined mother, her boisterous and fun-loving brother – until, one day, Anna wakes to find that her father has disappeared. He has fled to Zürich, where he wishes to prepare a new life for his family, and within a few weeks the others must follow him. They must also make haste, because all over Germany Jews are beginning to feel the iron hand of oppression – people are having their passports confiscated, and encroachments into their personal freedom are just beginning. Their family friend, ‘Onkel’ Julius, tells Anna’s father that he is being ridiculous – ‘this will all blow over,’ he feels. Anna’s father is over-reacting, he is sure.

Nevertheless, the family leaves with as much speed as they can muster without drawing undue attention to themselves. Within a fortnight, Anna’s mother has arranged their departure, and the removal of all their belongings, and they are making ready to flee. Anna’s father is quite famous, as a writer and journalist, and her life in Berlin is comfortable. The disappearance of such a high-profile figure as her father is hard to conceal, but they manage it, explaining his absence by saying that he is ill with ‘flu; then, finally, they take a fraught, tense train journey toward the Swiss border. Anna and her brother are delighted with the cat belonging to the lady who shares their carriage, and are happy to amuse themselves by looking out the windows at the new world zooming by – but Anna’s mother’s white-knuckled grip on her handbag, and her pinched face, tell the reader all they need to know about how much fear she was in. The story follows the family as they move from hotel to boarding house, to cheap rented flat, as their money begins to dwindle. They lose their household staff, and Anna’s mother must learn how to do tasks she has never before needed to perform in order to keep the children clothed and fed. Anna’s father cannot find well-paying work – nobody is willing to employ a writer with his profile, or at least not for the money he could earn in Berlin. They leave Switzerland for Paris, and then finally they go to London.

This is not a book about the war, as such. There are no moments of violence here, and no descriptions of atrocity. This makes the poignant scenes – the loss of childhood innocence, the leaving behind of beloved toys, the separation from friends and family, the death of a beloved person – all the more powerful. This is a story being told by a ten-year-old girl, trying to explain to us how it felt to live in these troubled times, and how little sense it all made. A powerful scene early in the book shows Max and Anna happily playing with two German children – that is, until the mother of their new playmates comes outside and catches them. “‘Siegfried!’ she called shrilly. ‘Gudrun! I told you you were not to play with these children!'” (p. 70); the German mother then removes her children from Anna and Max’s company and refuses to let them play together any more. To the children, this seems ridiculous, unfair and stupid – and to the reader, seeing nothing more than the names given to the young Germans (both of them taken from Germanic mythology and folklore), it is clear what sort of people these Germans are. However, we share one thing with our childish narrator – the separation of these children, two of them Jewish and two Aryan, but all German – is ridiculous, unfair and stupid. It is a brilliant point, cleverly and gently made.

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is a slow, seemingly slight, and simply-written book. It is not a war diary, and it is not a book filled with explosions and battles. It is the tale of one family remaining steady in choppy waters, and a powerfully moving testament to the ways in which war rips apart the fabric of normal life, severing families and separating loved ones. It is a piece of lace covering a dark black hole.

It is deservedly a classic.

Never Forget

I’m not sure why I get so emotional around this time of year. The closer it gets to Armistice Day, the more my heartstrings swell at images and footage of people all over the world paying their respects to their war dead, and remembering their own experiences of war. Clearly (although I’m old) I wasn’t around during the war and Ireland was (notionally) neutral during WWII, so I shouldn’t have a huge connection to any sort of commemoration service.

And yet…

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

I watched a special programme aired by the BBC over the weekend in which a man who is now eighty-eight years old returned to the beaches of Normandy where, as an eighteen-year-old, he had landed with his compatriots in an attempt to liberate German-occupied France. He described his journey toward the beach, and how the fear of what awaited them was almost outweighed by the seasickness caused by the rough waters; he relived the feeling of the flat-bottomed vessel making landfall and the knowledge that nothing but his own speed and agility would save him as he raced up the beach toward the German lines, with bullets zipping – like ‘a load of birds singing’ – past his head.

He recalled picking up the bodies of his fallen comrades once the battle was over, boys of seventeen and eighteen years of age. ‘They never had a life,’ he said, gazing around the beach, and he wept, remembering his friends, boys he had trained and fought and laughed with, all of whom gave their lives in order that future generations might be free. I wept too, because there was something so deeply moving about a man of such age and experience demonstrating how the pain of war never truly leaves you, and how the memories of what you experience during a time like that are always there, just beneath the surface.

It also made me think about the terrible loss of life, and the unimaginable sacrifice offered up by so many hundreds of thousands, without which none of us would be living the life we have.

It’s such an easy thing to forget, the suffering of generations gone before us. I often wonder whether the world we have created is something that a fallen soldier from the Great War or the Second World War would be proud of. ‘Yes – this was worth dying for. This world is the perfect Utopia we dreamt of as we crawled through the muck of the trenches or fought hand to hand in the villages of France.’ Is this what a soldier would say if it was possible to bring him back for long enough to take a look around? I’m not so sure.

I wish there was no need for war, and I certainly wish humanity would stop fighting and killing one another over things like natural resources and money. Fighting for freedom and liberty, the right to live without the burden of tyranny, fighting to save your country from the oppression of an aggressor – that, I can do my best to understand. Without wishing to malign any country’s serving military, I nevertheless have to say that I think some of the wars being fought in our modern world are a lot harder to comprehend. Then, the average soldier has very little to do with the causes behind a war – he or she simply does their duty, and to the best of their ability.

Having said that, any man or woman who gives their all in the service of their country deserves to be respected and remembered, and perhaps it’s my innate pacifism that makes me so upset and sorrowful each Remembrance Day.

My thoughts are also with all those thousands of people killed, injured and left destitute by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It makes me very sad, and angry, that it’s almost always the people who have the least who suffer the most during natural disasters, and I can’t help but think that climate change – which is, almost always, nothing to do with the people who suffer as a result of it – has a role to play in the terrible weather events of the last few years.

All in all, it’s a time for reflection and togetherness, and an opportunity to honour the memory of the war dead – who fought for what we now have – by helping one another, and doing our best to create a world they would be proud of.

Try to spread a little kindness today, in whatever way you can.

Image: monastery.com

Image: monastery.com