On the fortieth anniversary of its publication, Brian Alderson examines beginnings and endings in Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom.
Willie’s paper bag
contained nothing but a towel, some soap, toothpaste, a second-hand Bible and a strap with a buckle; also a letter ‘To whom it may concern’ apologizing for the paucity of what was sent and urging the use of the strap when required for ‘like most boys he is full of sin’. Such were the revelations that Willie brought from London as an evacuee to an unidentified village a couple of days before the start of the Second World War.
The reader concerned
in receipt of the letter was the village’s reclusive sexton, Tom Oakley, a man driven in upon himself following the death of his wife in childbirth some forty years previously but now lighted on by the billeting officer as the evacuees were distributed around the local community .A strange coupling: an eight year old boy, still unable to read or write, unloved and friendless at his Deptford home (with evidence of the use of the strap in weals and welts on his body), and an unsociable sexton, affectionate only towards his dog, Sammy. The sudden larger demand of a national emergency (the whole village assembles at church on the Sunday to hear the declaration of war on a communal wireless) has overridden traditional attitudes and Mr Tom’s acceptance of his duty opens up a natural sympathy once he recognises the deep-rooted problems of the child he has involuntarily inherited.
The events of the story,
make up a loosely assembled agglomeration of experiences that take Willy from his ninth to his tenth birthday. It is hardly an ‘evacuation story’ since the other Deptford children who arrived with him barely appear and mostly go back during the phony war anyway, although a singleton, the ‘infant prodigy’ Zacharias, son of two Jewish performers in London theatres, proves to be instrumental in Willy’s late blooming as a child of some talent.
From Willy to Will, or even William,
he evokes sympathy and friendship among his village school mates and with the astonishing facility allowable in novels joins his natural gifts as an artist, to full-fledged literacy, and a lead in the school Christmas play in a couple of months. We are never given an account of how the performance is produced, since the school has only two teachers, nor of the inner life of the village or its dialect, an all-purpose ‘ent’ for ‘isn’t’ does duty as the local patois.
Such fame as the book has
(and its subsequent production as a television play with John Thaw as Mister Tom and, later, as a musical) derives from the momentous events that follow Will’s recall to Deptford by his mother who is ill. The sixty pages of this account in which the woman’s cruelty is horrifyingly revealed and which lead to Mister Tom and Sammy to kidnap Will from a hospital and the ministrations of a spooky psychiatrist are the most absorbing of the book. Once truly ‘home’ though incidents pile up in unspecific detail and only with the death of Zach in the London blitz do we refocus on Will’s grief and his eventual mastery of that grief, all ending happily with Mister Tom being granted the boy’s adoption.
There would seem to be
a dangerous precedent for celebrating a book’s fortieth anniversary even if, as with Goodnight Mister Tom, it has won an award (in this case the Guardian prize). There could be quite a queue. But Puffin has augmented an obviously commercial venture by including, thanks to Ms Magorian, some illuminating supplementary material. After a publisher’s note outlining her accomplishments, there follows a four-page Introduction by herself in which we can follow the emergence of the full-fledged novel from her mother’s reminiscences as a nurse in London during the blitz. There are also ideas sparked by an unprompted mental picture of a child evacuee with a label round his neck standing in a graveyard, and this is joined later when she sees a sexton’s house on the edge of a graveyard.
There was, she found,
the germ of a story in the conjunction of these disparate ideas and she sketched out what was to be an account of the first meeting of Will and Tom. Then, seeking to imagine the origins of Tom’s reclusiveness, she wrote the short story, ‘Rachel and the Paint-box’ (c.1978?) which told of his early marriage and the tragic loss of his young wife and new-born son to the ravages of scarlatina. That of course was to become a fulcrum for Goodnight Mister Tom (the clinching moment when Will calls Tom ‘Dad’) and it is one of the features of this new edition that Magorion has offered a complete version of that tale as an Appendix.
Nor is that all, however,
for in the conversion of the novel to a musical she found lyrics ‘pouring out of my head’ and the book concludes with a selection of these given to the characters’ voices. They form an alternative telling of moments of the story as it were from the inside and there is a revelation in the double rumination of Mrs Beech, Willie’s mother. In the story she is a wholly enigmatic character, her hair-spring descents into anger and violence hardly explained by religious zealotry. Her appearance now makes for no justification but, for readers taking up small clues in the story, an implication that she may be on the game and brimful of guilt provides a feasible explanation. Moreover the blunt announcement in the book that she had committed suicide is filled out in the adagio transition of her song to the further implication that she had drowned herself at sea, cleansing her impurity. One remembers then the otherwise barely relevant episode in the story when Will and Zach and Mister Tom take themselves off for the rare solace of a wartime fortnight, finding an equivalent peace.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
The 40th anniversary edition of Goodnight Mister Tom, is published in a clothbound hardback edition, Puffin, 9780241524541, £12.99 hbk