Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian

I started this post in March 2010 and then put it aside, because Goodnight Mister Tom is a hefty book with hefty themes, and deserves some thoughtful writing.

And then I realized that between March 2010 and today (May 2011), I have picked up this book several times just to leaf through favourite passages and scenes.  Two days ago, I started rereading it in earnest (and finished by flipping through the last half…ah, my impatient self!) and realized that I could no longer justify not-writing a review.

I read Goodnight Mister Tom in school.  I don’t remember which grade, but I know that there were some things that I understood rationally (for instance, that child abuse exists) but couldn’t actually imagine (for instance, how people might feel when their brother is MIA during a war).

Can you tell that this is a book fraught with heavy themes?  Thank goodness, Michelle Magorian is a skilled storyteller and she is able to weave all of these frightening not-so-every-day things into the life of a young boy who is (essentially) fostered out to a grumpy old man.  I don’t know how she does this.  To demonstrate how masterful she is, I’ll give you a quick story synopsis and then what will undoubtedly be a very long list of issues she tackles:

William Beech is a 9-year-old boy from London who is evacuated to the countryside at the beginning of the Second World War.  He ends up living with 60-something Tom Oakley, a grumpy recluse, and Sammy, Tom’s dog.  William is severely abused and is a physical and emotional fragile wreck.  Mister Tom’s patience, perseverance, and growing affection, and the goodwill of the people of the village of Little Weirworld, slowly have their (expected) positive effect on William…until William is sent back to London to live with his mother.

Tom Oakley is a curmudgeonly widower who has lived alone with his dog as the caretaker of the church in Little Weirworld.  He takes William in because he has to do his duty, but finds to his surprise that he likes raising a child.  William’s sweet nature and the renewed friendliness of the villagers (now that Mister Tom is no longer constantly grumpy) have their (expected) positive effect on Mister Tom.  When William is sent back to London, Mister Tom makes the uncharacteristic decision to do something about it.

Seems rather trite, but Michelle Magorian makes it complicated by including the following:

  • child abuse
  • crushes on 9-year-olds by 6-year-olds
  • bed-wetting
  • illiteracy and learning to read
  • shyness and overcoming shyness
  • evacuees being treated as “slave labour”
  • scrumptious descriptions of meals (why is it that English books always have the best descriptions of food, and yet everyone deplores English food when they speak of it?)
  • death (of many people – it is the war), and how different people (adults and children) deal with it
  • how to make new friends and overcome the fear of rejection
  • country versus London
  • being Jewish in the 1940s in England
  • being a smart girl in a male’s world
  • the adjustment of small villages to floods of evacuee children
  • the adjustment of small communities to people being suddenly called away
  • shopping for things in an English village in the 1940s
  • the different accents and vocabulary of people from different parts of England
  • oh yes, and did I mention: World War II, the main underlying theme (along with How a Boy Survives Abuse with the Help of his Caregiver)

In other words, a simple story, with huge underlying themes, the little complexities of being a little boy who is growing up and realistic details of English country life throughout.  (N.B. I’ve never actually lived an English country life in any century that I’m aware of, but Goodnight Mister Tom paints a picture that is more or less consistent with what other (mostly children’s) books I’ve read have said).

Favourite character who is neither Mister Tom nor Will: Carrie.  Or maybe Zack.  It’s hard to say.  Zack is so colourful and just wants to be loved.  Carrie, on the other hand, is the smart girl, and I’ve always liked the smart girls in stories.

Reading Ages:  12+.  I read it before I was 12 and thought it was great.  I understood most of what was going on, even if I couldn’t empathize.  I reread it several times through high school and in my adult life.  It’s right up there with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for children’s books that are truly timeless (only it’s shorter than A Tree and also maybe not quite as mature).

Rating: A-.  The minus is because it is not quite, in my mind, an absolute must-have for any children’s library.  But it’s pretty close.


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