Thursday, 26 May 2011

Goodnight Mr Tom - Michelle Magorian

Willie Beech is evacuated to the countryside as the Second World War breaks out. A sad deprived child, he slowly begins to flourish under the care of Tom Oakley. But then his mother summons him back to war-torm London..... will he ever see Mr Tom again?
Republished in 2003 under the Puffin Modern Classics for children, this is a must read, even if you never read children's books, and can't understand the attraction. Its not the best written book ever, but it made me want to devour it, hour after hour. Willie Beech, aged 9, arrives with a train full of evacuees, stitched into his underwear for the Winter, wearing thin, shabby clothes and plimsoles, and covered in sores and bruises. He is taken to the home of Tom Oakley, a man in his 60's, widowed at 20, and a loner ever since, except for his dog, Sam. He takes the boy in only because with war approaching, it's his duty. The boy is shocked to get a room of his own, and he sleeps under the bed the first night, because "beds are where the dead are laid out". Persuaded to sleep in the bed, he wets it for every night for a long time, and cannot understand why Mr Tom does not thrash him for this 'sin'. His abuse was not only that of the flesh. The things his Mother told him and threatened him with make it very difficult for Willie to understand why he is not punished on a daily basis. He can't read or write, but he can draw really well, and Mr Tom encourages him in this whilst helping him to recognise his written name and how to write it before he goes to the village school. At school he finds that not everyone is a bully, and that there are boys (and girls) there who want to be his pal. Amongst those children is Zach, another evacuee, a Jew whose parents are actors, and a boy who has his parents' gift - seen by the other children of course as just plain "showing off"! Zach becomes his closest friend, calls him Will because Willie might be misconstrued and begins to draw him out of his shell.
The second half of the book is somewhat darker - he is sent back to London at the request of his Mother, who is not well. When he returns home on the train, he is torn between Mr Tom who he does love, and his Mother, who he knows he should love, but has never ever given him a reason to do so. What he finds in London is horror and violence and a Mother who is obviously mentally unbalanced. Mr Tom becomes increasingly worried and eventually takes the train to London himself to find out if Will is still alive. What he finds at the house filled me with such sadness that I sobbed aloud, and although this is fiction, I know that real life for some children is the same. This is not a book with a completely happy ending, although it ends well for Will - but for a child reader, it introduces them to many things that they will not perhaps have experienced. The joy of companionship both animal and human; education and teachers who care; good food as an intirely new thing; a little sex education; the horror of death and loss, the realisation that everyone has a worth. And other people's lives woven together, which makes us all what we are.