Goodnight Mister Tom has been an eternal fixture in my life since I was young. I think in fact, going against the trend, I actually watched the 1998 TV adaptation (starring an absolutely perfect John Thaw) before I read the book, but I can’t be too sure. One thing I am sure about though is that I’m definitely not alone in my adoration and appreciation for the story.
But for those of you who might be unfamiliar, Goodnight Mister Tom is a children’s novel that was published in 1981. Written by Michelle Magorian (in fact it was her first published works) it tells the story of William ‘Willie’ Beech, a London evacuee who during World War 2, is evacuated to a small village in the country. He is placed under the care of a gruff but kindly local man whom William grows to call ‘Mister Tom’ (Tom Oakley to everyone else). And it is the relationship between William and Tom that is the basis of this quite lovely story.
When William first turns up on Tom’s doorstep, he is a nervous scrap of a child. Illiterate, covered in bruises, timid and scared, he is the product of his mentally ill mother, who both emotionally and physically abuses him. Tom, a widower and loner, doesn’t really know what to make of him, but tries to make him comfortable. Though Tom is gruff and short tempered, it is immediately apparent that he is also very kind. For example when William has first arrived, Tom asks him to hang his coat up, but William is unable to reach the coat peg. Tom decides to himself that he will put in a lower peg ‘for the boy’ and asks William to draw a dot where he would like the peg to be. It is small, but thoughtful gestures like this that gradually help William to realise he can trust this ‘strange old man’.
As the story continues, we observe the relationship between the two growing stronger, like that of father and son. Primarily it is Tom who helps William grow and flourish, but in the kindly village setting, where everyone knows everyone (and everyone loves everyone) William makes new friends and has new experiences – such as blackberry picking and assembling air raid shelters – and all of these things too, contribute to him ridding his demons and becoming a normal, healthy boy.
But of course, good things must (usually) come to an end, and just after William has played the starring role in the school play of A Christmas Carol he gets a letter from his mother back in London, saying she wants him home.
William’s trip back home is extremely traumatic. His mother, unfortunately, is as wicked as she was before he was evacuated. It is only thanks to his beloved Mister Tom that he escapes alive. I know I’m giving a bit away here but come on, it’s a children’s book. Of course Mister Tom will rescue him.
And anyway, the story doesn’t end after William’s rescue. After he is safety back at Little Weirwold with Mister Tom and Sammy (Tom’s ‘almost human’ dog) there are more dramatic events that unfold, some wildly happy and some tragically sad. The whole story has so many parts to it, a rich tapestry so to speak. You know it will end okay, but it’s how they get there in the meantime and what we learn from their experiences.
Though a book intended for children, it has always been popular with adults too and quite rightfully so. There are elements to the story that I would say have more relevant to adults than to children anyway. And because it’s written in third person, rather than from William’s perspective, it doesn’t have that childlike worldly outlook. We understand immediately that William is an abused little boy, though he himself thinks his life has been normal.
In 1998, Carlton Television made an adaptation of the book that was very well received. I think it was so popular – mainly due to John Thaw’s performance as Mister Tom – that it’s almost taken over the book in popularity. And it is a great adaptaion. Of course it misses bits out of the book and I must say William Beech (no offence to the actor) was not really how I imagined him to be in the book. But John Thaw, bless his soul, literally WAS Mister Tom. No-one could have done it better. I actually picture him when I re-read the book now, which is at least once a year – and definitely every Christmas. I even hear John Thaw’s voice when reading the dialogue.
So if you’ve never read or watched Goodnight Mister Tom I would implore you to do so! It’s the kind of story we can all relate to, any nationality, any age, any background. It’s a story that symbolises the simplest yet most important of our human traits – kindness, love, empathy, compassion and acceptance.
And it has something that we all need sometimes (especially at Christmas) – an exceptionally happy ending.