Good Night, Mr. Tom
Michelle Magorian (YA Historical Fiction)
Thomas Oakley was well into his sixties when the Billeting Officer knocked on his front door. To the people in his village of Little Weirwold, Thomas was an isolated, bad tempered, and frosty man, but to the officer, he was the perfect fit for this particular evacuee. Eight-year-old William Beech had come with specific instructions from his mother: either place him with a religious person or near a church. Thomas Oakley fit the bill perfectly. So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company. But when Thomas loses touch with William after being summoned back to live with his mother, Thomas embarks on a journey to find the young boy who had become like a son to him.
I always hold out hope that books for young adults that have important themes may somehow find a way into the hands of younger readers. I thought this might be possible with Good Night, Mr. Tom. Although it carried warnings of child abuse, war, and death, the first part of the book was rather benign and contained mild implications of these subjects: the blacked-out windows, bruises and sores on William’s body, William’s fear of reprisal and constant nightmares, and reports on the wireless or in newspapers. However, once William is reunited with his mother, the tone of the book shifts dramatically and it becomes terrifyingly obvious why this book is recommended for more mature readers. The imagery is horrific and quite contrary to the idyllic life William experienced in Weirwold, which makes it all the more shocking and appalling when William has to relive this horror for a second time.
Magorian, quite deservedly, received the 1982 IRA Children’s Book Award for Good Night, Mr. Tom. She fearlessly delves into the psychological trauma that follows prolonged mental and physical abuse, as well as the impact it has not only on the abused themselves, but also on those around them offering support, healing, friendship, and love. She also explores the emotional toll of the war on a small village as young men are called to service while their loved ones patiently await word of their wellbeing. Thankfully, Magorian gives her readers sufficient mental breaks by balancing tense, emotionally exhaustive scenes with lighthearted moments shared between friends and family. It’s this back-and-forth that makes for a fast-paced story that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an impassioned, tragic, and dramatic story.
Good Night, Mr. Tom immerses readers with a story about bonds and their importance and fragility. For the first time in his life, William has a best friend, Zach, who values his company, admires his differences, and treasures his friendship. Also, William finally has a parental figure in whom he can trust and depend. Magorian’s overall lesson in her compelling and powerful story is the healing power that comes with unconditional love. William’s mother taught him that love came with strings (“Mum had said that if he made himself invisible, people would like him and he wanted that very much.”), but his friends in Weirwold and Mr. Tom showed him the beauty and power of a love given completely and unselfishly. The Persian lyric poet Hafiz once wrote, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” Zach’s kindness and Mr. Tom’s devotion remind us that even in the midst of war and surrounded by the darkest of black shades, love’s light shines bright and can heal even the most damaged and tortured soul.
*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com
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