Jun 21, 2011

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight, Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mister Tom is a historical children’s novel set during WW2. It tells the story of William Beech, a London boy who along with thousands of other children is evacuated to a country village when the war begins. William stays with an unlikely host, a 60-year-old grumpy and solitary man by the name of Mr Thomas Oakley. But Will is a bit of misfit himself: he’s a very lonely child who grew up with an abusive mother and no friends at all, and as such the last thing he expects from those around him is kindness. Will and Mr Tom make an unlikely pair, but the two develop a strong connection that enriches both their lives. However, as Will is an evacuee his situation is temporary. Both he and Mr Tom know that sooner or later he’ll have to return to his mother.

I really wanted to love Goodnight Mister Tom - and one level I did. Reading it reminded me of looking at letters from child evacuees at the Imperial War Museum in London. I particularly remember one of them, whose author wrote: “It’s called Spring, mum, and they have one of these around here every year!” Will had a deprived childhood, both materially and emotionally, so his new life in the country is full of similar wonders and discoveries. It’s lovely and very moving to watch Will flourish, to see Mr Tom himself be drawn out of his isolation, to watch the community of Little Weirwold do their best to welcome this child.

Yet one another level, I found Goodnight Mister Tom a very unsatisfying book. First of all, there’s the fact that it almost reinforces the Demon Single Mother stereotype. The plot comes worryingly close to opposing a traditional country upbringing – one that is right and proper and healthy and wholesome – to impoverished single mothers in the city who are inevitably bound to fail. The reason why I say “almost” is because I’m aware that reading this as a story that demonises non-traditional families is deeply unfair. Mr Tom, after all, is a widower in his sixties – not a traditional family by any means – and he does a splendid job with Will. Still, there were far too many echoes here of all the scare stories I’ve read over the years about a working woman’s inability to bring up a child on her own. Obviously there is a real issue here, in the sense that we live in a world that does not by any means makes it easy for single working mothers to raise children on their own. But there was a sense of inevitability to what happened in Will’s case that put me off.

What adds to this problem is the fact that Will’s mother is portrayed more as a cartoonish bogeyman than as a real person. I have no trouble at all believing that there are abusive, mentally ill parents out there who mistreat their children to this extent, but nevertheless I wish the story had made more of an effort to acknowledge her humanity; had given us at least a glimpse of what was behind her appalling parenting. Why was she the way she was? Why the abuse? Why the need for absolutely authority over her child? What turned her into this? I felt that Goodnight Mister Tom did the opposite of what The 10PM Question does in this sense: we see and sympathise with the very real consequences of her behaviour on Will, but we never get a glimpses of who she might be beyond that.

As I read Goodnight Mister Tom, I could not help but keep mentally comparing to Barbara Noble’s Doreen, which I read last year and absolutely loved. What made Doreen such a moving and satisfying book was exactly the fact that it showed both sides of the story. Doreen’s mother could never give her the same kind of privileged environment as her host family, and in her fear of losing her daughter she did cruel, selfish things. Yet readers are never allowed to lose sight of her humanity. Goodnight Mister Tom is a children’s book while Doreen is not, but the day has yet to come when I’ll be persuaded that I ought to expect a different degree of nuance and emotional complexity from children’s fiction than I do from fiction for adults (this is of course quite separate from the accessibility of the writing). Fortunately there are authors out there like Sharon Creech, Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman or Diana Wynne Jones who constantly remind me that I’m not wrong to refuse to lower my standards.

Spoilers warning for the next few paragraphs: To make matters worse, Will’s mother is very conveniently got rid of towards the end of the story with a suicide, and this isn’t explored at all beyond the following conversation:
“She killed herself.”
Will gazed at her in stunned disbelief.
“Killed herself? But ... but why?”
“I don’t know. I suppose she just didn’t want to live anymore.”
How could anyone not want to live, thought Will, when there were so many things to live for? There were rainy nights and wind and the slap of the sea and the moon. There were books to read and pictures to paint and music.
There are the thoughts of a nine-year-old boy, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect a full understanding of the complexities of depression and suicide. But this paragraph still rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt so dismissive of the circumstances that can lead someone to such a radical decision. People can be fully aware of how much there is to love in the world and still feel, for one reason or other, than they can’t bear to live anymore. Magorian did not, of course, need to make the book about suicide, but this is one of those things that I think should be handled sensitively and thoughtfully if you’re going to include them in a story at all. [/spoilers]

There are some very interesting secondary characters and subplots in Goodnight Mister Tom: there’s Zach, a Jewish evacuee and Will’s first real friend; there’s Carrie, a Little Weirwold girl who wants to go to highschool, and once her wish is granted finds herself stuck between two worlds; there’s another subplot dealing with grief and loss and the costs of the War. But for the most part, I felt that these were only explored superficially. While they were never meant to be at the heart of the book, I still wish they had been a little more detailed.

Don’t get me wrong, though: there’s still plenty to love here. Goodnight Mister Tom is a good book, and it does a wonderful job of evoking the wartime period. But I felt that it could easily have been great, if only it had handled things with a little bit more depth.

Other opinions:
Another Cookie Crumbles
Tea Mouse
Cardigan Girl Verity



  1. You always write really good thoughtful reviews, Nymeth but for once I can't help but disagree with you. Perhaps because this has been one of my favourite books since I was about 14 (and read it about a million times since.)

    I don't think that every book always needs to fully explain everything, because quite often you are left not knowing in life.

    Of course whether the intended reading age child would understand is the question... but I understood when I was 14 and never felt any real hatred towards the woman, but a curiosity why she was this way. It does make you think about it and certainly when you learn a bit more about these issues, you can look back and understand.

    Nor do I think there was any demonisation against single mothers. She just happened to be a single mother with mental health problems.

    I think why she is a single mother - is because she's a mother. Sadly, people probably expect father's to be the abusers, rather then the maternal figure. I guess it rather depends on what other books you have read beforehand.

    I think Mister Tom was my first experience of child abuse in a book and looking back as a 14 year old, I think it taught me a lot about how other people live and made me a little more understanding and grateful too of my life.

    Whether it should have explained the mother's illness more to me is I suppose personal preference - because I don't think a book needs to explain every little thing. In the end, it is something that you can go off with learn about at a different point and then look back. Not every book has a lesson.

    In fact, in most DWJ books I have read... the reason behind neglectful parenting has never really been explained either. They're just downright awful people - like Duffie in Dogsbody. She was a complete cow.

  2. Fiona, I really appreciate your thoughtful comment even if (or especially because) we disagree! I didn't feel that way about Duffie in Dogsbody or most awful parents in DWJ's books - in fact, the way I felt about them was similar to how you felt about Will's mother. To me, it's not a matter of overexplaining, proselytizing or teaching a lesson, but including subtle acknowledgements that every story has two sides, you know? In the end, whether or not a book does this can be more up to the individual reader than anything else. I've been trying to pinpoint why some books succeed on this regard and others don't for months now, without much success so far. Maybe this is an answer in itself.

  3. I ve not read the book I did enjoy the tv version of it though ,but can agree the sterotyping of people can be off putting sometimes in books ,all the best stu

  4. I have seen that exhibit to in the Imperial War Museum - its awfully sad and sweet!

  5. Though the book sounds interesting, I can totally see why you would have problems with the lack of depth and nuance in it. I also have read books where single mothers were villianized, and don't really understand where that mentality comes from. I agree that in the case of this book, the mother may have been mentally ill and abusive, but there is another side to the story, you know, and it would have been good of the author to acknowledge that. But then again, I tend to always be on the side of anyone who struggles mentally, as I tend to have a lot of sympathy for those individuals. Very nice review, Ana.

  6. I am a big fan of The Imperial War Museum and that exhibit is indeed incredibly moving. Random book rec, look for Paradise Barn by Victor Watson. I have not read this one so I can not compare but I was so impressed with Paradise Barn, it is was so good despite having no accolades - a sort of Enid Blyton type of mystery with 3 children (one evacuated), but real and with some twists to the plot. I will try to recommend it to you on goodreads if you are still using it.

  7. oops, sorry for the double post.

  8. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting more from children's books. When reading with my daughter about WWII, I've found that some books hold back when kids really are able to understand and process a bit more. I'll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  9. Oh! I read this book as a little kid, but haven't thought about it in years. I seem to remember a scene about sock garters? (It's weird what lodges in the memory, isn't it?)

    I feel you on the demonization of single mothers - that would rub me the wrong way as well.

  10. This has been on my radar for a while now, I'm always drawn to stories about both the Blitz and child evacuees - any recommendations?

    I second the nod to Paradise Barn, really enjoyed it.

  11. It has been a while since I read this one, but I remember that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It started out very well - really drew me in - but at some point, I started getting a strong feeling that I was being emotionally manipulated. I could feel the author calculatingly pressing those tear jerking buttons. Really put me off.

    Hmm. Didnt he write "Mr Nobodies Eyes" about a chimp? Or am I mixing things up?

  12. Oh - @Alexandra - recommendations for stories about the blitz

    Robert Westall wrote quite a few that I really loved.

    Blitzcat - about a cat's adventures during the blitz. I loved it.

    Children of the Blitz - non fiction. Based on memories of people who were children during that time

    The Machine Gunners - fabulous, gritty story of children during wartime.

    I know there were more, but cannot remember them now...

  13. It's a shame this one didn't live up to its promise. That's a period of history kids need to be reading about.

  14. I can see how that would be really frustrating. I get frustrated when "bad guys" in the book are characterized so one-note. Very few people are really like that (aside from sociopaths). There's generally always a reason why they act the way they do. Even if their despicable, it's nice to be able to at least understand them a bit.

    I don't think it's too much to ask to have more depth in children's books.

  15. I read this in sixth or seventh grade, and I have lots of snuggly nostalgic feelings for it, even though I recognize it's not perfect. Have you read Magorian's book Back Home? It's got some of the same problems and some of the same strengths -- it's about an evacuee girl who comes back to England after spending the war years growing up in America. She's a poor thing, but her single mother is rather marvelous.

  16. It was an interesting experience reading your review, because you seemed to read something in the book that I didn't read at all. I found Will's mother to be a tragic character - her tragedy is not that she can't cope with single motherhood, but rather the untreated mental illness that drives all her behavior, including getting pregnant twice when her distorted thinking makes her believe that sex is evil, and the fruit of her "sin" is evil. The mother doesn't seem to be a working mother (unlike Will's teacher) - you have the impression that her illness (not her single motherhood, or working motherhood) has made her unable to function in any sphere. I found this a pretty accurate picture of the ways in which poverty, ignorance and untreated mental illness can make a trifecta of disaster for children. The parent could easily have been the father, but that would have been less credible - it is almost always the mother who is left with responsibility for unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Honestly, I don't think it's fair to toss this one into the Demon Single Mother category.

  17. When was this book written? How depressing that it was written by a woman. I know it's a children's book and perhaps people will think you looked too deeply into some issues, but as someone who just finished a classic children's book (France Hodgson Burnett's The Lost Prince) and had some issues with it that I probably wouldn't have had as a child, I appreciate your pointing these things out. (Not sure that sentence made any sense.) In that book, the mother is someone who just couldn't handle the pressure, so she died before the book even took place (so convenient not to have an emotional mother around to crack under the stress), and was explained away in an aside at the end. It bothered me that a woman wrote a book like that, as though she expected nothing else from a woman.

    I really like that you compared this book to others that confronted the subject better, so to speak- at least to show that there are authors out there struggling to define what success means to a woman.

  18. Stu: I've heard good things about the TV version. And also about the stage adaptation - I would love to see that!

    Sarah Norman: It really was!

    Zibilee: Don't let me put you off picking it up, though! It really might just have been me.

    Anonymous: Thank you for the recommendation! I will definitely look for it. And no worries about the double comment; blogger acts up like that sometimes.

    Anna: Thank you for linking it! You do such an amazing job with War Through the Generations :)

    Emily: It really is funny what sticks with you! I actually had this review draft saved since March, so the stock garters are gone from my memory :P

    Alexandra: Not much I can add to Masha's excellent recommendations except perhaps Carrie's War by Nina Bawden. Also two Persephones: Doreen, which I mentioned in the post, and Saplings by Noel Streatfeild (one of my very favourite Persephones to date).

    Masha: Something about the emotional tone felt off to me as well. It's too bad, because there were many things about it that I really loved. Also, thanks for the recommendations!

    Kathy: Many people did love it, so perhaps it was just me!

    Kristi: Yes, exactly. It can be really hard to be clear about what I want this acknowledgement of their humanity to look like, though, and why I think some books lack ir while others don't.

    Jenny: I haven't, but there was definitely enough here that I enjoyed to make me want to consider reading her again.

    Mumsy: What you say makes perfect sense, but somehow the mental illness angle didn't stand out to me nearly as much when I was reading the book. I wish I could pinpout why! I felt like I was stuck between conflicting readings and couldn't entirely believe either of them; like the story was a mere inch away from portraying Will's mother like a tragic figure but somehow not quite there. It sounds like it might have been more me than the book - perhaps this one to revisit at another time?

    Aarti: It's from 1981. I haven't read The Lost Prince, but I'm curious now, especially because it's Frances Hodgson Burnett! I always find that there's such an interesting tension in her work between traditional views of femininity and ideas that are actually quite advanced for her time. In every book of hers I've read to date I found strands of both, and it was fascinating to see them interact.

  19. Crikey! I never even considered it in that context. However I have only ever seen the TV Adaptation of it which I found rather beautiful. John Thaw was an amazing actor and was brilliant as Uncle Tom.

  20. I too have only seen the TV adaptation although I hadn't developed my interest in tales of war-time Britain back then so can't really recall much, except that it was about family. I really should make my way down to the Imperial War Museum at some point. I've lived in London all these years and still haven't been. Oops!

  21. "...the day has yet to come when I’ll be persuaded that I ought to expect a different degree of nuance and emotional complexity from children’s fiction than I do from fiction for adults." Oh bravo. I couldn't agree more.

  22. What Mumsy said.This was one of my childhood reads and probably I'm way too close to it to analyze this in a way that makes any sense. So. I always felt terribly sorry for Will's mother although I realized that the writer intended her to be the token villain in the story. Her evil seemed to stem more from social causes than from anything intrinsic. Of course, there isn't any particular sentence that can be pointed out as showing sympathy towards the mother's flawed humanity, but I could imagine the circumstances that made her who she was, because Magorian did paint her as mostly undone by her illness and social status.
    An aside: At this point my brain is weeping out of quiet desperation because this is the first time I've ever fervently disagreed with you and it feels like contradicting The Pratchett.

  23. Vivienne: Do read it yourself, though, as you might very well feel differently than I did!

    Chasingbawa: Yes you do! I went the day after I meet up with you and Claire and it completely lived up to my expectations.

    Cheryl: The more children's literature I read, the more convinced of that I become.

    Munch: Nooo, please don't feel bad! The conversation with Mumsy continued over e-mail and we agreed that I should reread the book at some point or another. So many things that have nothing to do with the book come into play when we read - perhaps that's what happened with me in this case. (Though I must say I'd be heartbroken to ever fervently disagree with The Pratchett myself :P)

  24. Being a single mom myself I would definitely bristle at the stereotypes that this novel seems to perpetuate. That being said I do find a certain charm in a young lad and an older gentleman helping each other become more human. For some reason it makes me think of Heidi. Anyway, I think I would be willing to give this one a try even if there are quite a few shortcomings.

  25. Hey,
    The book isn't really saying that single mothers from the country cant look after their children, because she is obviously meant to be mentally unstable, perhaps she has a mental illness. Tom stated in the book that he think she is wrong in the head (or something along those lines) which is true, the book has nothing against single mums from the city; i don't expect many mums from the country to be that 'religious', she was a horrible mum, you have to admit that. I am reading it in my class at school (we are year six) we all believe this. Nobody in there right mind would tape up there babies mouth so nobody would find out. She probably has a mental illness!

    Your Faithfully,


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.