Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
London is poised on the brink of World War II. Timid, scrawny Willie Beech -- the abused child of a single mother -- is evacuated to the English countryside. At first, he is terrified of everything, of the country sounds and sights, even of Mr. Tom, the gruff, kindly old man who has taken him in. But gradually Willie forgets the hate and despair of his past. He learns to love a world he never knew existed, a world of friendship and affection in which harsh words and daily beatings have no place. Then a telegram comes. Willie must return to his mother in London. When weeks pass by with no word from Willie, Mr. Tom sets out for London to look for the young boy he has come to love as a son.
I have read this book over a hundred times over the space of twenty years, and it's nothing less than wonderful with each read. Initially, I was introduced to it through the standard primary school studies of WW2. Adopting a fascination for evacuees, ration books, and air raid shelters, and as the girl who read so much she had to be placed into a reading group all on her own, I was directed towards this novel by a teacher.
Flash forward twenty years, and I'm a bitter old cynic chasing the warm feeling I experienced before my heart frosted over. Sad films, romantic displays of affection, sick puppies on the telly; nothing was making me feel anything. Enter William Beech, the frail, frightened and abused evacuee; show me Mister Tom, the grumpy old man with a full heart; give me Sammy, the most perfect dog I have ever seen written; describe to me the horrors of wartime England, and the way people came together to get through it, and I'm done. I'm brimming over with warmth, fuzz, and a slight relief that my heart can still be reached somewhat.
The story is steeped in the innocence of being young, discovering the world, understanding the importance of friendships, and most of all, the importance of having someone you can trust, even if you are the unlikeliest pair Little Weirwold has ever seen.
Magorian's descriptions of William's new home are completely gorgeous. The rolling countryside, the horse and cart, the sun shining through tree branches, were all written simply yet delicately, creating in us a strong sense that this is where William belongs. Summertime dissolves into a chill, with rain bouncing off the gravestones, and William and Tom running for cover in their cottage. Magorian's description of Tom's fireplace, and the two of them curled up on an armchair reading together, did a lot to warm my otherwise chilled soul.
For these two to come together, grow together, and encourage each other (however unobserved) to change into stronger and more loving people, just brings a total lump to my throat.
Despite the comfort and simplicity of William's new life, Magorian doesn't keep us safe. She reminds us of war happening just outside of Little Weirwold's utopia, and jars us unexpectedly into the terrors of its grasp by sending our lovely little evacuee back to the ravaged dirty streets of London. I was rapt. Although the novel deals with an abundance of serious issues, Magorian writes these subtly, in a way which won't perturb young readers, but also being careful enough to highlight the more adult issues for those of us guilty of being a bit older.
The most gentle and heartwarming childrens' novel, I will come back to it time and time again. It's more than worthy of any reader, of any age, and I would encourage those of you who haven't tried it to absolutely pick it up. Those of you who have, please read it again.