Abuse and Resilience: Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian

If you take a gander at  the tags for this post, you might be pardoned for feeling a little confused: how can Good Night, Mr. Tom be Historical Fiction and Nonfiction? To be sure, Realistic Fiction and Social Issues (Abuse, Death and Mourning, and War) often walk hand in hand. But how can one book be Out of Theme as well as Nonfiction when the month’s theme is non-fiction?

I’m ducking out of this month’s theme of non-fiction books a little here, because I’ve wanted to write about Good Night, Mr. Tom for weeks. And also because the first few chapters essentially serve as a (non-fiction)manual for How to Spot an Abused Child. Adults who work closely with children are required to take workshops on recognizing abuse, and necessary as it is to be able to recite a list of common behaviours of abused children, may I suggest that a few chapters from this book be mandatory reading for anyone who works with children on a daily basis?

This is not to denigrate the writing; on the contrary, one of Good Night, Mr. Tom‘s strengths is its portrayal of how thoroughly an abused child not only reacts, but thinks and feels differently from a child who has been raised on love and reasonable discipline. Just when I thought I had a handle on William’s reactions, something else that I had never thought of would arise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. William, or Willie, or Will, is the protagonist* of Good Night, Mr. Tom. All of Britain knows that a second Great War is likely to break out every day, and many London parents are sending their children to the countryside, where they are fostered off on whoever will take them in. Sent away by his mother, Willie is taken in by Thomas Oakley, a gruff widower in his sixties. Willie’s body is covered with bruises from where his mother had belted him, using a leather belt with a steel buckle. His mind is as beaten: Willie believes that he is bad and deserving of punishment. He is timid, malnourished, ashamed of his bruises, puzzled by normal (kindly) human interaction, almost incapable of making decisions, and terrified of Tom’s dog, Samuel. Willie can neither read nor write, vomits frequently from emotion, and wets his bed nightly.

He is pathetic.

He is convincing. Pathetic: “miserably or contemptibly inadequate.” Willie is completely unequipped for normal life, or indeed, any life beyond being belaboured, neglected, and beaten by his mother. Pathetic: “causing or evoking pity, sympathetic sadness, sorrow, etc.; pitiful, pitiable.” (definition source) Willie is never turned into a cute or adorable little boy. To do so would be to betray the horror of how he has been raised. Magorian is careful never to turn an abused child into an ideal: Tom is irritated by Willie’s timid tugs on his pant leg when he wants to say something, and the healthy children around Willie find his behaviour inexplicable.

But Good night, Mr. Tom is not solely a story of abuse. It is also of Willie’s healing as, with Tom and the villagers of Little Weirwold, not to mention an outgoing fellow evacuee, Willie begins to have something approaching a normal childhood. He studies hard. He learns to play. He digs a bomb shelter. He makes friends. Willie’s slow growth into blossoming is wonderful to watch.

Good Night, Mr. Tom is also a story of resilience, because (murder your darlings) the story does not end with Willie’s happiness as a nearly-native Little Weirwold dweller. There is a war on, his mother is still alive, and escape from abuse is never so easy as a train ride to the countryside.

The narrator doesn’t identify exclusively with any one character for the duration of the novel; Tom is as much a focal character as Willie. There are moments when the narrator gives a brief glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of relatively minor characters. While this added interest, there could have been more of it earlier on; only at the very end of the story do certain minor characters begin to come into their own. The narrative style is different from what modern readers may be used to. This is, I believe, a deliberate choice on the part of the author, to reflect the time period represented. It would have been jarring and wrong for Willie’s tale to be told in Percy Jackson’s voice, for instance.

The story is Willie’s; it is also Tom’s. Working with children whose family situation is unstable or unsafe is disheartening for adults, but Good Night, Mr. Tom counteracts heartbreak even as it inflicts it. Adults who have been abused as children who do not grow up to be abusers themselves relate one common feature of their childhoods or adolescence: at some point, there was an adult who cared for them and treated them as somebody worthy of love and respect. That made the difference when the time came for the child to choose between hatred and healing.**

I highly recommend this to older children and to teens and adults who work with children.


* Or co-protagonist.

** I’ve read this fact in a number of places, most recently (I think – I can’t find the exact quote) in Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.

8 responses to “Abuse and Resilience: Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian

  1. I’ve taken note of this book. I work with children and teens and think this story would give me some great insight. It also seems like this would be a tough read. Was it difficult to read at points?

    • Yes and no. Yes because reading about abuse is always hard, and toward the end something happens that is very difficult to grasp, it is so horrific; no because we see very little of the abuse itself. The narrative doesn’t dwell on it more than necessary; the narrative style isn’t gratuitous but has a certain amount of compassionate distance. What Willie endures (thinks as normal!) rouses fury and compassion, but most of the story takes place amid a close-knit, loving community.
      It was never hard to the point that I hesitated to pick it up; always what might happen next was a draw, not a deterrent.

  2. This is interesting – I read this when I was quite young – it’s a very common book in England – and would never have put the label of abuse on it. Even though clearly that is what it is, until I read your post I would never have said it was a story about abuse. It is a beautiful book – Magorian is fabulous.

    • She is, isn’t she? I’m looking forward to reading Back Home.
      It is interesting how one’s age when one first comes across a book changes things, doesn’t it? I mean, as an adult reader, the first thing I thought was, AHHHHHH ABUSE! But if I’d read it as a child, as you did, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Makes me wonder how useful (adult) categorizations are – or aren’t.

  3. Pingback: The Best of 2015: Middle Grade Fiction | The Book Wars·

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