Michelle Magorian: Goodnight Mister Tom
Last time I saw my brother, a childminding comedy of errors meant that I spent an entire day with him gadding around the centre of London. This was fantastic, if expensive – our favourite place to eat together is Yo! Sushi, because what kid wouldn’t love their dinner being served via a conveyor belt? But you can easily run up a bill of £40, even if it’s just you and your 9 year old brother eating. (There have been occasions in which I’ve spent less than that on a meal out with J, just to put that into perspective!)
Anyway, the day became even more expensive for me, because if there’s one thing my brother knows about me, it’s that I’m a sucker for buying him books. Yes, I have turned into that relative that buys books at every present-giving opportunity. Still, he can buy playstation games with his own money. We were actually looking for books for my father, whose birthday’s coming up in the near future, but that just meant that we were browsing the shelves for books that we were interested in ourselves. For example, Why Don’t Penguin’s Feet Freeze?. We were both interested in that book. And then we ambled over to the children’s section, where the boy discovered a copy of Goodnight Mister Tom.
So he came over to me, trying to look innocent, and said, “Rachie, did you know I don’t have a copy of Goodnight Mister Tom? And I really want to read it before I see the film of it…”
Well. It would have taken a heart of stone to say no to that request-that-wasn’t. So, I bought it for him. And then, on the train home, I caught myself trying to read it over his shoulder. This is a bad thing to do when you’ve just bought the book for somebody else, especially when that someone is a child and you’re an adult, so I stopped. And yesterday, back in Sheffield, I found a copy in Oxfam for £1. Not only that, but it’s the same edition that I’d had when I was a kid. I spent the whole of yesterday evening reading it.
From the blurb: “Young Willie Beech is evacuated to the country as Britain stands on the brink of the Second World War.” And that’s all you really need to know before reading it. This is his story, the story of a 9-year-old boy. Since it’s a children’s book, the war is touched on only in as much as it affects children: blackout curtains, the dig for victory campaign, adults slowly disappearing as they get called up. What seems more important – and what makes me like the story so much – are the characters, adults and children. It’s nice, too, to have a story in which adults and children seem equally important.
The language, as you might expect, is fairly simple. The ideas are not. Death is touched upon, of course, and with it grief, fear and guilt. Mental illness and abuse play a large part in the story, both implicity and explicitly. There were parts of the book that made me cry whilst reading them, even as an adult. And yet, there is happiness. This isn’t a book that makes you despair, as I’ve sometimes felt when reading another of my children’s books, Noughts And Crosses – which has also made me cry at times. Instead, Goodnight Mister Tom gives the impression that the more difficult emotions in life are only a part of life, not all of it, and that happiness can and will return.
It’s also a historical novel, and not fantasy, and so it benefits from the careful research that Michelle Magorian put into it, even down to the weather on particular days. The famous declaration of war from Neville Chamberlain makes an appearance via the “wireless” in the village church, as do several London air-raids. The changes in women’s roles and status are also touched upon, which is something that intrigued me when I first read the book, over 10 years ago.
Like I say, I bought it for my brother, who – like Willie Beech in the story – is 9. I certainly wouldn’t have bought it for him any earlier, firstly because it’s long for a children’s book, and secondly because some parts of it can be incredibly upsetting. On the other hand, the copy that’s now in my flat is also for J to read, and he’s 26. (One of my missions in life is to find J books that he likes from my collection, so that we can talk about them. He’s currently on Day of The Triffids – a John Wyndham classic – so he’s now no stranger to books aimed at adults.) It is a historical novel, and as such will probably be enjoyed by anybody who takes even a passing interest in 1940s England, but because the story is a story of people, it’s one that I’d recommend to anybody who didn’t mind a bit of sadness in the middle of a book. And, to top it off, it has the advantage of being a children’s book, and so cheap, and also of being readily available in charity shops across the UK (a side effect of being an award-winning book that was published in 1981). In conclusion: I should never have got rid of this book to begin with, and I never will again.