Monday 29 June 2015

Revisiting Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Review by Kate Mallinder

I’m always reluctant to re-read books which I loved as a child.  The potential that they don’t live up to my memories of it, or that it won’t give me the same feelings that I had when I first read it keep me wary.  There’s so many new books to read, I justify to myself, why go back?

So it was with trepidation that I started Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.  I bought it as I’d borrowed it from a library as a child and when it arrived, I put it on one side.  A couple of days later I was cooking the tea and picked it up, only meaning to read the first paragraph or two.  Before I knew it, I had pans boiling over and I’d finished the first chapter.

It was wonderful – the memories were powerful, flinging me right back to when I was a kid.  I must have read it when I was nine or ten, and the feelings it invoked were huge.  I’d imagined Tom Oakley’s house, and I hadn’t been back there since, yet here I was, visiting his little house next to the Church again.

So that was it.  I don’t get much time for reading but if the book is right, I can find the time - sleep is overrated anyway!

I know it’s not very fashionable at the moment, but I enjoyed knowing what each of the characters was thinking.  Magorian dips in and out of the characters like brushes in paint, so that you know within the same scene what Mister Tom is thinking of Willie and also what Willie is feeling.  Personally I quite like that.  I know where I am with everyone.  With the lesser characters we are also given the odd insight to their thoughts which results in the reader having a huge empathy with many of the people.  Interestingly, there isn’t much given away about Mrs Beech’s thoughts.  Perhaps that is because she needed to puzzle and be unjustifiable to the reader.  Either way, this subtle distinction made reading the story all the more potent as she came across as pure evil.

The time when it is set, at the start of the Second World War, is brilliantly told.  People’s reactions to events are believable and as the war intensifies, you watch as viewpoints change.  Against this backdrop, the topics it covers are the biggies - child abuse and the effects of war, personally, emotionally and physically, but somehow through it all you feel safe in the writer’s hands.  I was dreading reading about Willie’s return home in the middle of the book, and this was the part that brought the biggest emotional memories for me.  Until I had read this book as a child, I didn’t know what child abuse was or its effects.  Magorian doesn’t shy away from it but neither does she glory in the details.  There’s just enough for the reader to know the horror.

The aspect I adore the most is that it’s a story filled with hope despite covering some of the darkest things a child can live through.  The instant I finished it, I tweeted about how much I’d loved it and Aoife Walsh tweeted back ‘The woman knows how to write hope and redemption, it’s like a masterclass.’  And it is for that reason alone that you should read it, either for the first time, or for the umpteenth time.  It truly is a classic that stands the test of being enjoyed by both children and adults.

A few facts:

  • Written in 1973, Goodnight Mister Tom wasn’t published until 1981.
  • It has won numerous awards and has been made into a TV drama, musical, stage play and radio play.
  • Goodnight Mister Tom started as a short story but Magorian wanted to know more about Willie and Tom, so wrote the book.
  • Willie and Tom are based on trees – Willie Beech on a young slim beech tree and Tom Oakley on a sturdy old oak tree.

Kate blogs at and is on Twitter @KateMallinder

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read the book but I have seen the TV dramatization and loved it. Now, after what you have written I must read the book.