Michelle Magorian’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom is a moving tale of an eight-year-old boy, William Beech who is evacuated from London’s Deptford area to go and live in a village called Little Weirwold shortly before the Second World War breaks out.
With an abusive history, a weak, pale William arrives in Little Weirwold and is placed under the care of Tom Oakley, a healthy, middle-aged man famous in his close-knit village for being a recluse, just because he lives next to the local church in accordance to the specific instructions of William’s mother. Tom reluctantly agrees to take him in, in the name of ‘national duty’, neither of them considering how this small act of ‘national duty’ was going to change their lives forever. And thus began a journey of recovery and rediscovery for the two of them.
This journey makes up the crux of the novel. His overbearing, extremely religious mother conditioned him that he was inherently bad and thus deserved to be punished. Asking questions, answering back to an adult, asking for help are just some of his so-called ‘sins’. Consequently, he arrives in Little Weirwold thinking that he is a bad child and therefore, must be punished.
But Tom finds it impossible to fathom how a parent could convince their child that s/he was inherently bad and punish them for it. But in her letter to her son’s new guardian, William’s mother merely states that her son is a bad boy without specifying any vices her son might have. In contrast, Tom is unable to see the ‘badness’ that the boy’s mother can apparently see in her only son.
Subsequently, Tom begins to soften towards William and helps to prepare him for the village life. He takes the boy shopping for fabrics for a proper set of clothes, as well as boots, a library membership, a comic book and a lollipop. The village is shocked to see their recluse out and about with a young evacuee in tow. On finding out that William can’t read or write, he also decides to personally tutor William in reading and writing. Most people in the close-knit community of Little Weirwold are supportive and help Tom in assisting William to settle down despite gossiping about it, while being genuinely welcoming to William and the other evacuees in general.
There are many reasons to explain why William thrives under Tom’s guardianship. Firstly, Tom encourages William to think and make decisions for himself for the first time in his entire life. This, like many other things, was previously prohibited by his mother, who evoked fear in him by saying he would go to hell for disobeying her. Therefore, he is shocked to discover that those forbidden actions weren’t actually going to land him in hell because those things were normal, everyday tasks that everyone did. It was a simple realisation but it was momentous nevertheless.
Secondly, despite Tom’s initial curt manner, an aura of kindliness surrounds him, which makes William begin to trust him fairly soon, although his upbringing should have made him prone to misgivings about people being kind to him.
Thirdly, the wholesome food, new clothes, a separate bedroom and the sense of freedom that Tom provides William with, along with discharging his ‘national duty’, increases his confidence level. Constant social interactions with the other villagers and evacuees, especially with children of his age also help him greatly. This is how he becomes best friends with a confident, outspoken boy called Zach, an evacuee like him, in the village.
Fourthly and the most important, Tom not only tutors William in reading and writing but also discovers and nurtures his natural talent in drawing and painting. Therefore, Tom essentially becomes a genuine parental figure that William had lacked throughout his early childhood, which then helps William to grow into a confident, talented child.
But the positive change didn’t only occur in William. Tom also begins to undergo several changes as he looks after the boy. The biggest change occurs in him fairly early in the novel, which is that after 40 years of mourning the deaths of his young wife and infant son in complete seclusion, he begins to participate more actively in Little Weirwold’s public life, along with William. In fact, in order to nurture William’s artistic talents, he is compelled to visit the art supplies shop in the nearby town of Weirwold, which is what actually helps him to come to terms with his grief and finally end his period of mourning and subsequent isolation. In this way, Tom becomes better equipped to deal with William’s bereavement later in the novel. This improvement is discernible while he carries on as normal, patiently waiting for William to come to terms with his own grief and accept his loss.
Goodnight Mister Tom is one of those children’s books that stays with you long after you have read it; especially if you read it as a child and read it so often that it became a part of your very being; scenes from which play like a film clip in your mind for much of your life. The novel has remained a part of the childhoods of several generations since its publication in 1981. It is not a typical children’s book that might lose its magic when children have grown into adults. In contrast, the delicate treatment of the themes of loss, bereavement, death, life, love, relationships and most of all, child abuse in the novel have made it one of the most widely read children’s books.