Goodnight Mister Tom, by Michelle Magoran, is set in England during the early years of the Second World War. City dwelling children are being evacuated from their homes to live with strangers in the countryside for what is regarded as their own safety. One such evacuee is eight year old William Beech who is handed over to the dour and somewhat elderly Thomas Oakley because he lives beside a church. William’s mother has stipulated that her son must be placed with someone who is religious. She fully expects this new guardian to beat the sin out of the child, as she has always attempted to do. She provides a belt for the job – she provides little else. Other than his bible, William brings only the threadbare clothes he is wearing.
Tom is perturbed by this sudden invasion of his home. Nevertheless, he accepts the filthy and malnourished boy believing it to be his duty as part of the war effort. Despite having lived alone for forty years Tom didn’t always keep his distance from village affairs. Once he had a wife and they had been preparing for the arrival of their child. Tom gives William the room under the eaves that was never in the end used, and discovers parenting skills that surprise even himself.
William has been brutally trained never to ask questions and struggles to cope with the sudden changes. When he realises that Tom will not beat him, that he is to sleep in a bed, and that it is acceptable to get dirty in the course of work or play, a new kind of life presents itself. For the first time he makes friends and comes to understand that he is not repulsive, despised by everyone, as his mother had made him believe.
Many of the evacuees return home within a few weeks – recalled by parents who missed them too much, or so homesick they run away. William, meanwhile, is finding a happiness he did not know could exist. He befriends another evacuee, the exuberant Zach, along with a group of village children. With the help of Tom and the local librarian he learns to write and read. A talent for drawing is uncovered and nurtured. He is embraced by the local community.
William’s newfound happiness is put at risk when his mother recalls him to London. She writes that she has been ill and requires his assistance. When she observes the changes in her son, how he has filled out and gained confidence, she determines to return him to cowed subservience by whatever means.
Although written for children the story does not shy away from difficult issues. The writing is straightforward but explores numerous aspects of complex relationships. There is cruelty and tragedy alongside the many kindnesses and friendship. The author weaves the many and varied challenges of family and community life, with its preconceived demands and expectations, into a taut, compelling tale.
The author explains at the end her inspiration for the story which made me love it even more. Although emotive and somewhat simplified in places it is never mawkish – despite the trauma and grief the tale is uplifting. There are indeed many good people in the world alongside the arrogant and deranged. This is a beautiful, heartfelt read.
Goodnight Mister Tom is published by Puffin Books. I borrowed my copy from my local library.