Good Night, Mr. Tom (YA Historical Fiction)

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  So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company.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.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Ann Rinaldi (YA Historical Fiction)

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley 

Ann Rinaldi (YA Historical Fiction)

It was May 1772 and Phillis Wheatley was going to Province House in Boston to prove that she—and she alone—authored the poetry that had caught the attention of so many.  Soon this 17-year-old slave would be standing in front of merchants, clergy, councilmen, the lieutenant governor and governor, and John Hancock to prove the authenticity of her work.  It wouldn’t be easy, for who could have imagined that an uneducated African girl could not only read and write, but produce such astonishing work.  But before Phillis Wheatley came to this critical juncture in her life, her journey would start ten years ago in Senegal, West Africa where a disgruntled uncle would sell her for brandy, some cowrie shells, and muskets.

With just a few minor exceptions, Ann Rinaldi gives readers an historically accurate account of Phillis Wheatley’s remarkable journey from slavery to becoming America’s first published black poet.  This young girl, who was sold into slavery at the age of seven and named after the very ship that carried her to America, would grow up to meet such dignitaries as John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington.  Rinaldi takes us to Boston where we relive the Smallpox Epidemic of 1764, the Quartering Act, the Sugar and Stamp Acts, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory Boston Port Act of 1774, and the Suffolk Resolves.  It’s a delight for history enthusiasts and an unbelievable story for readers of all ages.

Up until the time of its publication in 1996, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons was the first “humanistic” story written about Phillis Wheatley.  As Rinaldi explains in her Author’s Note, “All the books written about [Phillis Wheatley] at present are scholarly, concerned with the dry facts of her life or her classical poetry.”  When Rinaldi told her friend, an African American librarian, that she was writing a book that would “put flesh” onto Phillis Wheatley, her friend’s response was, “It’s about time.”  Indeed, it was.

Phillis Wheatley’s story is heartbreaking and tragic.  Despite her literary gifts and talent, she died in poverty and obscurity.  Although she was granted freedom by her master, she was never able to rise above the limitations she faced due to the color of her skin.  Although these are Rinaldi’s words and not Phillis’s, one can imagine the poet saying something similar: “…I love that when I write I am not skinny and black and a slave.  My writing has no color.  It has no skin at all, truth to tell.”  Phillis Wheatley’s poems may not have had skin, but they were brimming with heart and soul and hope.  “I could scarce contain my own excitement,” Rinaldi’s Phillis said.  “The more I wrote, the more excited I became.  I felt like Columbus must have felt when he just discovered America.  Only the land that I had sighted was myself.  In a way, my own way, I was free.”    

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket