Goodnight, Mr Tom
In Brief: Slightly awkward storyline, but heartwarming; religious-driven cruelty of Willie's mother, her illegitimate baby and eventual suicide; the kindness of the villagers and especially of Tom Oakley.
Published in: 1994
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Setting: Rural Sussex / Deptford
- Willie Beech is a timid 9-year-old evacuee, sent from Deptford to Weirwold in rural Sussex.
- Tom Oakley is a crusty old widower who has Willie billeted on him. His wife and child died of scarlet fever 40 years before.
- Mrs Beech is an self-righteous and overly religious widow, given to beating her son Willie for real or imaginary sins.
- Zach, an extrovert and generous Jewish lad, son of actors, is also evacuated to Weirwold and becomes Willie's best friend.
Willie Beech, a timid 9-year-old, is evacuated from Deptford to Sussex, and is billeted on Tom Oakley, a widower who has allowed himself to become bitter and misanthropic since his wife and child died of scarlet fever 40 years before.
Each causes the other to open out, as Tom helps Willie to read and write and encourages his talent for drawing. Willie is called back to London by his mother, and Tom gets worried when he doesn't write and comes looking for him. He finds Willie tied up and emaciated with his mother's baby lying dead in his arms. His mother is later found to have committed suicide. Tom takes Willie back to the country and adopts him.
The final act involves Willie's recovering from his experience in London only to be overwhelmed again by a more personal tragedy.
That this was the author's first book is not surprising: the style and dialogue are erratic in places. However, the sheer warmheartedness of it all carries you away when you read. Certainly, the story is a little romanticised: the crusty old widower whose soft heart is revealed by the timid boy who grows up and makes friends in the country air. But each actor has a definite role and an individual character; even the more background characters have character.
Although the principal young character is a 9-year-old, the story contains some aspects which might be little understood by and possibly frightening for children that young. The boy himself doesn't really understand them as they happen.
In particular, Willie's mother is from the start a religious bigot, and given to beating Willie in self-righteous anger. Later, she has a baby, presumably by one of the lodgers she takes in, according to the local gossip, which she later abandons with Willie whom she's tied up and left in a cupboard. When Tom and the police find him, he's emaciated and covered in filth and doesn't understand that the baby's been dead for days. When he does, he feels guilty for not having been able to look after it.
Later, as Willie is coming to terms with what has happened to him and to Trudy, the baby, Zach explains in a natural and moderately delicate way how babies come about, something which was preying on Willie's mind. The explanation is really quite good, but parents may wish to get in first.
The final tragedy in the book is at first a cause for despair in Willie, but ultimately forces Willie to reassess himself and his relationship to those around him.
It has to be said that the author explains the more distressing matters — especially the various deaths and Willie's mother's actions — delicately and usually at a distance so that you understand clearly what's happened without her descending into sordid details. However, this very fact may make it difficult for slightly younger readers to realise what's going on.
“Do you know, Mrs Fletcher, last week he laughed. It were a bit of a nervous one like, but he actually laughed. It were the first time I ever heard him do it. Didn't think he had a sense of humour in him.”
Mrs Fletcher looked steadily into his eyes. His forehead had lost its old furrowed look. The deep pitted wrinkles above his eyes had softened outwards. Behind his scowling manner was a kindly old man and if it hadn't been for the arrival of a rather insipid little boy, she might never have known, nor might anyone else for that matter.
Friday 25th July 2003