I’ve recently finished re-reading a book that has been sitting untouched on my shelves for over twelve years. The last time I read Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (first published 1981), I was around ten years old and it had such an impact on me that I couldn’t sleep properly for over a week.
Aimed at younger readers, Goodnight Mister Tom focuses on the relationship between nine year old William “Willie” Beech and Tom Oakley, a sixty-something widower living in a small town in the English countryside. It is September 1939 and Willie, along with thousands of other children, has been evacuated from London to the countryside, fleeing from the threat of World War II.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4
Perceived by many in the town as a “bad-tempered, frosty old” man, Tom seems a strange choice to be looking after a young boy, yet his gruff exterior hides a sensitive and gentle nature that are soon revealed (pg. 65). Willie is a scared young boy who suffers from malnutrition and has clearly been abused by his single God-fearing mother who sees him as sinful and wicked. Though it takes him some time to settle into the rhythm of his strange new life, Willie soon begins to thrive under Tom’s care. Indeed, the situation allows both Willie and Tom to thrive and grow, and the bond that develops between them is a strong and mutually beneficial one.
I may have last read this book over twelve years ago, but in all that time the impact of it stayed with me. I remembered the wonderful relationship between the gruff old man and the scared young boy. I remembered the innocent beauty of the English countryside, and the friendships Willie forms there. But what stuck with me the most was the horror of Willie’s forced return to London and his mother and her brutal treatment of this wonderful young boy.
Mrs Beech is a madwoman who suffers from paranoia and an incapacity to see her son as anything other than a threat. She reacts violently to the changes she sees in him, changes she views as threatening to her ability to control him. The scenes with Willie’s mother present a stark contrast to the beauty and comfort of Little Weirwold, where most of the story takes place, but serve to further cement the wonderful relationship between Willie and Tom.
The novel presents some confronting issues, with war, neglect, abuse and death each featuring strongly throughout. However, Goodnight Mister Tom is a children’s novel and as such themes of love, friendship, growth and strength feature much more prominently then the darker issues. Overall, Goodnight Mister Tom is a beautifully constructed story that leaves the reader with a happy and hopeful message. A message about how a relationship can change people for the better and reveal sides to them that might otherwise have gone unknown.
This idea is summed up perfectly almost halfway through the novel, as the effect Willie has on Mister Tom begins to be noticed by others. “Behind his scowling manner was a kindly old man and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of a rather insipid little boy, she might never have known, nor might anyone else” (p.164). Soon enough though, the ‘insipid little boy’ and grumpy old man bring out the best in each other and become characters whom the reader can genuinely like and admire.
This is a great novel, written in a way that is easily approachable for children aged 10 and up (even us 23 year olds!). While the novel is set during World War II, Magorian makes it clear that this is not a book about the war, though it does provide some great insight into the way that people lived in the country around the time. Furthermore, the novel provides an example of the strength and healing power of relationships, and shows children that – no matter how harsh life can get, how painful or sad – there is always healing and strength to be had, and love to be found. Even in the strangest of places and people.
Goodnight Mister Tom is a novel that I would gladly include in my library collection. 🙂
Note: Goodnight Mister Tom was adapted into a film for television in 1998. I’m hoping to watch it soon myself!