My choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project is a story of an evacuee in the Second World War. A neglected boy from Deptford in East London is sent to the country and is billeted with a lonely and reclusive older man. How did this combination work out?
We have reached the 1980s. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorianwas published in 1981. This is the ninth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature.
Goodnight Mister Tom
William Beech (8) is an evacuee in 1939, sent from Deptford in London to a rural village, and lodged with an older man (in his 60s). This is Tom Oakley, who has been a bit of a recluse since his wife and baby son died 40 years before. Will is in a pitiful way: beaten and neglected by his mother and unable to read or write. Frightened of everything, he has been threatened with dire consequences if he strays outside his mother’s strict code. Despite it being September he has been sewn into his clothes for winter.
The old man has a loft room that he prepares for the boy. It emerges that Will has never slept in a bed. He is so anxious that at night he wets the bed. In order to care for the boy Tom has to learn discretion and gentleness. And he must work with his neighbours to clothe the boy and deal with the harm resulting from Will’s mother’s physical abuse. And when the boy goes to school another outsider makes him his friend. This is Zach, a Jewish evacuee. The two boys form an adventurous friendship with three local children which brings Will out of himself.
Both Tom and the boy gradually become absorbed into the transformed community. Will learns to read and write and his talent at drawing is uncovered.
All goes well until Willie’s mother demands his return and in a disturbing turn of events it is discovered that she has had a baby. I was genuinely shocked by the moment when Will finds the baby with her mouth taped to keep her quiet. Will has developed more confidence in what is right and wrong which is a provocation to his mother.
Not having heard from the boy Tom goes to London to find him and bring him home. Tom has been severely abused again and now the villagers bring him back to life.
Reading Goodnight Mister Tom
This is a great story, really well told. Some aspects of it are challenging as I have suggested: physical abuse of children, deaths and a child finding himself quite alone in an alien environment.
On the other hand, Will is clearly assisted by adults and friends (including the dog) using common good sense and decency, sympathetic care, encouragement, acceptance into a community and the unconditional love of a dog and an adult. Despite the dark context of the story ultimately it is positive and hopeful.
Goodnight Mister Tomby Michelle Magorian was first published in 1981. I used the edition from Puffin Books (1983). 358pp
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1990-99.
Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor (1976)
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
I was pleased to find two of my choices featured in the current edition of Slightly Foxed: The Eagle of the Ninth and Ballet Shoes.
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