#49. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Goodnight Mister Tom is a children’s novel by English author Michelle Magorian, published by Kestrel in 1981 and Harper & Row in 1982 with a U.S. edition. For this book, Magorian used a theme that holds similarity with C.S. Lewis’ novels about young children evacuating from large cities to the country during the war. Set in England during World War II, it features a boy abused at home in London who is evacuated to the country during the Battle of Britain. In the care of Mister Tom, an elderly recluse, William experiences a new life of loving and care, and Mr. Tom experiences what it is to love.
Mr. Tom Oakley opens his home to Willie, and provides a healthy and emotionally supportive home. Magorian involves the reader from the first page with small steps, following Willie as he develops from a terrified, abused child into a self-confident and talented human being through the aid of the gruff but patient Mr. Tom, other children, and adult friends, transforming from “Willie” to William and/or Will in that strength and confidence. He learns what it is to live in a stable and loving home. He learns how to trust, and how to be loved and appreciated. He even becomes best friends with Zach, although Willie is stunned at first, due to Zach’s generous nature and easy offering of friendship. They soon help each other to adjust to life, despite the obvious differences in their backgrounds and upbringing.
Throughout the book, we learn that Willie’s mother uses a perverse form of religious control to maintain her child. In fact, the only violent scene occurs at the novel’s climax, when Willie returns to his cruel mother. This scene makes the novel more appropriate for mature young adults, but it is vital to the plot, giving Mr. Tom an opportunity to rescue the boy he has learned to love. Magorian accurately captures the psychology of an abused child and sensitively depicts the devastating effects of child abuse. The description of Willie’s tedious process of rehabilitation through love gives the novel an optimistic tone without glossing over the horrible effects of child abuse. She shows how his mother’s mistreatment has incapacitated Willie, but the narrative concentrates on his healing process. Willie’s unforgettable story looks optimistically at the potential of patience, courage, and love to change things for the better.
While Goodnight Mister Tom mainly tracks Willie’s development throughout its pages, it is written in a third-person narrative, which allows the reader to see into different characters’ thoughts to round out the story, but it is still the action and dialogue that ultimately reveals the character. I recall that at one time, the point of view was of Sammy’s, the dog. The story uses quite an amount of dialogue, and is told in similar style as novels by Charles Dickens, with seemingly unimportant actions or habits giving a greater suggestion into their personalities and emotional states. For instance, in the first few chapters, Willie compulsively pulls up his socks to hide the cuts and bruises that cover his bony shins because his mother has convinced him that the marks left by her beatings are proof that he is evil. In Willie’s abused and damaged mind, he has proof that he is evil because of the wounds on his legs from the beatings and neglect.
The novel also sensitively portrays civilian life during wartime. Well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions of a World War II English village bring the narrative to life. The accurate historical background serves as an integral part of the story. Just as the residents of Little Weirwold work together to help Willie, they also make a community effort to alleviate the suffering that war brings. When Zach dies in a bombing raid, the villagers mourn but also help to make William’s recovery a bit more successful
Probably the most important theme in Goodnight Mister Tom is the hopeful idea that people can heal from trauma, even deep and difficult trauma. Will arrives at Tom’s house almost dead and worse than that, deeply traumatized from abuse. Mr. Tom understands that it takes time to heal, and he reassures Will that everything comes in its own time. Healing is not instant and not always easy. Tom is willing to allow Will to scream and thrash as he heals after his second terrible experience in London with his mother. He not only allows Will the time to heal, but the path that Will himself needs to heal. At the same time that Will really does heal physically and emotionally from the abuse of his mentally-ill mother, Tom also heals from the deep loss of his beloved wife and son. Geoffrey has healed from the losses of family and friends and even a limb. Will eventually heals from losing the love of his friend, Zach.
The novel has been twice adapted as a musical and once as a film, Goodnight Mister Tom (1998). I watched the 1998 film adaptation by Carlton Television. The cast featured the veteran British actor John Thaw and was directed by Jack Gold. They left out quite a few of the subplots that I felt made the book as well rounded as life really is. The drive of Caroline to achieve entry into the high school, as no other girl had done was a result of her very keen friendship with Zach, and later with Will. Zach’s drive to act and his participation and love during their seaside holiday were important in the healing process of Will, and were missed greatly in the movie.
Michelle Magorian and Goodnight Mister Tom won quite a few prizes and recognitions that must be named:
• The annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award judged by a panel of British children’s writers in 1982.
• She was also a commended runner up for the Carnegie Medal from the British librarians in 1981, recognizing the year’s best children’s book by a British subject.
• In 2003, the novel was listed at number 49 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read.
• International Reading Association Award 1982
• Runner-up for The Young Observer Prize 1982
• Western Australian Young Readers Book Award 1982
• National TV Awards 1999
• Best Drama BAFTA 1999
• Lew Grade Award for Most Popular Television Programme of 1998
• Television & Radio Industries Club Award 1999
• Best ITV/Channel 5 Programme of 1998
• BAMF Medal 1982