GOOD NIGHT, MR. TOM 1982
Author: Michelle Magorian, b. 1947
About the Author Overview
Good Night, Mr. Tom is a sensitive but
A new writer, Michelle Magorian promises unsentimental story of an abused small
boy and an elderly man who takes him
to delight readers for many years. Born in
November 1947, in Portsmouth, England, in as an evacuee during World War II.
Magorian spent part of her childhood in The gradual development of their
Singapore and Australia as the family followed mutual love makes for an engrossing
her father's naval assignments. Later he became story that holds the reader's interest.
a lawyer in Well-drawn characters and vivid
Hampshire, and there Magorian acquired the descriptions of a World War II English
feeling for the rural English settings described village bring the narrative to life. The
in her books. Michelle Magorian now lives in accurate historical background serves
London. A person of diverse talents, Magorian as an integral part of the story.
has trained as a teacher and has studied mime
The writer involves the reader from the
with Marcel Marceau. She has performed many
one-woman shows and has toured as a dancer first page as, step by step, Willie
and actress with several British repertory develops from a terrified, abused child
companies. into a self-confident and talented
actress with several British repertory human being through the aid of the gruff
companies. but patient Mr. Tom, other children, and
Magorian did not read much as a child adult friends. Willie's unforgettable
but discovered the pleasure of young story looks optimistically at the potential
adult books in her twenties, when she of patience, courage, and love to
became an avid reader. She enjoys research, change things for the better.
especially about World War II
and the post-war period. An old picture Setting
of a group of evacuee children touched Good Night, Mr. Tom takes place between
her deeply and strongly influenced her 1939 and 1941, during World War
interest in that phase of English history.
II, when children were evacuated from
She also has a love for poetry.
Writing has always been her hobby, London to escape the German "blitzkrieg"
and her works include horror stories bombardment. When Willie Beech
and plays for her theatrical company. is evacuated, his mentally ill, fanatical
One night as she participated in a musical, mother stipulates that he must live beside
a song inspired her to write a short a church. Thus, Willie ends up in
story about a little child and an old man. the rural English village of Little
As other stories followed, Good Night, Weirwold,
Mr. Tom developed into a moving novel where he lives in Mr. Tom Oakley's
about abused Willie Beech and lonely stone cottage adjoining a cemetery and
old Tom Oakley. Magorian hesitated to a church. Other locales include London,
mention her novel to anyone, but during
where a climactic scene occurs, and the
a writing course she showed her manuscript
to tutor-novelist Dulan Barber. At seaside fishing village of Salmouth,
his insistence she submitted it to a publisher, where the protagonists spend an idyllic
and the book became an international two weeks near the book's end.
Good Night, Mr. Tom won the prestigious
British Guardian Award for Fiction,
and the International Reading
Association Children's Book Award. It
was named a Notable Children's Book
and a Best Book for Young Adults by the
472 Good Night, Mr. Tom
American Library Association. Seldom
has a first novel received more recognition.
Magorian's second book, Back
Home, was also named to the American
Library Association's Best Books for
Young Adults list.
Themes and Characters The most important theme of Will's
The central characters of Good Night, story involves the power of love and
Mr. Tom are William Beech and Tom friendship to change people for the
Oakley. When he appears at Mr. Tom's better.
door, Willie is nearly nine, but he looks Tom and Willie, plagued by problems
like a six-year-old. The thin, malnourished that they cannot surmount alone,
boy is covered with bruises develop a mutual love and respect that
and cuts from his mother's beatings. makes them feel worthwhile and gives
Because of his lifelong abuse, everyone them courage. They need one another,
and everything terrifies the boy, leaving and together Tom and Willie find the
him uncommunicative, inept, unable to strength to make dramatic positive
read or write. He vomits from excitement changes in their lives.
and wets the bed nightly. Gradually Mr. Magorian also emphasizes the importance
Tom's kindness and encouragement of perseverance. Willie's and
overcome Willie's fears, and he becomes Tom's quests for self-improvement succeed
a happy, normal boy who loves his because of their extraordinary
benefactor dearly. Through association perseverance.
with other children, particularly the lively Likewise, Carrie Thatcher
Zach, he develops friendships for the rises above a family environment that
first time. does not encourage scholarship and,
through perseverance, goes on to high
Tom Oakley, embittered by the death school and continues to excel.
of his artistic young wife and infant son,
The effect of war on civilians constitutes
William, has been the village recluse for another of the novel's themes. Magorian
years. Now in his mid-sixties, Mr. Tom describes shortages, rationing,
agrees to take an evacuee child because blackouts, and air-raid shelters. She
"It's obligatory and it's for the war effort." also shows that difficult times can bring
The sickly Willie is more than he bargained out the best in people, as citizens contribute
for, but under Mr. Tom's abrupt to the war effort by volunteering
manner lies a kindly heart. As he as air-raid wardens, knitting for soldiers,
and substituting for teachers and
patiently cares for the youngster's others who have been drafted. Good
needs, Tom develops a great love for the Night, Mr. Tom depicts the tragic effects
child, whose companionship fills his of war as well: Zach dies in a bombing
lonely life. While helping Willie, Mr. Tom raid during a visit to his parents, and his
changes his attitude toward other friends must adjust to his death. By
people, acting as the church organist setting Willie's story against the backdrop
of World War II, Magorian shows
and choir director when Mr. Bush is the potential for grave violence is not
drafted. To enrich Willie's social life, Mr. limited to people such as Mrs. Beech
Tom opens his home to other children, who live on the fringes of society.
who find the former recluse to be a good
friend. Literary Qualities
Good Night, Mr. Tom traces Willie's
Willie's best friend, Zacharias Wrench development in a fast-paced story rich
in sharp images. The third-person narrative
(Zach), is his opposite in many ways. occasionally delves into characters'
The gifted son of traveling actors, Zach thoughts, particularly Willie's, but
is also an evacuee, staying with kindly Magorian generally relies on action and
Dr. and Mrs. Little. Zach's ebullient dialogue to reveal character. The realistic
personality, dialogue effectively uses dialect. As in
extensive vocabulary, and Charles Dickens's novels, characters'
Jewish religion make him an unusual seemingly minor actions or habits suggest
a great deal about their personalities
character in the quiet little village. But or emotional states. For
with his gift for fitting into a group, he instance, in the first few chapters, Willie
soon earns the affection of the village compulsively pulls up his socks to hide
children. Imaginative and enthusiastic, the cuts and bruises that cover his bony
he is a natural leader. His encouragement shins because his mother has convinced
and admiration of his shy friend's him that the marks left by her beatings
talents in art and acting help Will are proof that he is evil. At the end of the
book, Willie's request to ride Zach's
develop confidence in himself. In spite of colorful bicycle indicates that he has
his tragic death, Zach's strong influence come to terms with Zach's death and
on his friends remains a positive force. that he is ready to celebrate his friend's
The Thatcher children also befriend Magorian accurately captures the psychology
Willie. George Thatcher, a stolid sturdy of an abused child. Willie's
village boy, dislikes school but has mother has taught him that dogs are
poisonous, so when Mr. Tom's dog approaches
considerable him for the first time, Willie
ability in nature study. George holds Sammy at bay with a stick and
teaches Will to enjoy outdoor activities, threatens to kill him. As Mr. Tom takes
beginning with a blackberrying picnic. the stick from Willie's hand and
Ginnie, one of George's sisters, works prepares to throw it for Sammy to fetch,
hard at home but shares her brother's Willie believes that Mr. Tom is about to
attitude about school. Her twin, Carrie, beat him. Willie again misinterprets an
innocent gesture when he thinks that
is very different from her siblings. Carrie Mr. Tom is preparing to brand him with
longs to continue her education in high the poker that the old man is using to
school after finishing the village school, stoke the fire. Willie does not exactly
where she is an excellent student. distrust Mr. Tom; he simply believes
Through much extra study with her that his mother treats him as he deserves,
teachers and the vicar, Carrie passes the and he cannot conceive of an
entrance examinations and becomes the adult treating him any differently.
Because he has been taught that asking
first girl to earn a scholarship. She questions is impolite and because he
perseveres has been consumed by his efforts to
in high school in spite of the avoid provoking his mother, Willie at
other students' snobbery. Zach and Willie first exhibits very little curiosity about
the world around him. But he gradually
encourage her ambitions, and she learns to appreciate the warmth and
becomes their good friend. comfort of Mr. Tom's home and the quiet
beauty of the English countryside. Magorian's
Willie's mother, a mentally ill religious vivid images and Willie's
fanatic, plays the villain of the story. enthusiasm about his surroundings—
Mrs. Beech has constantly abused Willie which he expresses in colorful paintings—
and his baby half-sister. When she bring these settings to life for the
reader. When Willie's mother calls him
sends for Willie to return to London, Mr. back to London, his awareness of his
Tom realizes how fond he has become of surroundings vanishes. All he sees is his
the boy. After not hearing from him for mother, who is "very pale, almost yellow
a month, Mr. Tom and his dog go to in color" with lips "so blue that it seemed
London to search for Willie, and they as if every ounce of blood had been
find him tied up, beaten, and abandoned drained from them." This narrative technique
with his dead baby sister in his suggests that Mrs. Beech's presence
completely overwhelms her son.
arms. When Willie is hospitalized with a
nervous breakdown, Mr. Tom promptly The main characters' names have
rescues him and brings him back to symbolic significance. Tom Oakley's last
Little Weirwold, to begin again the task name suggests a strong oak tree with
of nursing the boy back to health and gnarled branches, while Willie Beech's
sanity. This time they both acknowledge last name suggests a sturdy, smoothbarked
their love for each other. beech tree with abundant foliage.
The names by which other
The teachers in the story all prove to characters refer to Willie are also
be good influences on Willie. Most fully important.
drawn is Mrs. Hartridge, wife of a soldier His mother always uses the
reported missing in action and mother diminutive "Willie"; in Little Weirwold he
of a delightful baby girl. The elderly Mrs. is known as "William" or "Will," implying
Black teaches Willie in her beginners' that he is finally able to exercise his own
class until Tom's tutoring enables him will. Willie realizes the importance of
to move into Mrs. Hartridge's class with this change when he returns to his
his peers. Miss Thorne, the drama mother: "Suddenly, now, when his
teacher, first discovers Willie's gift for mother referred to him as Willie it was
acting. Late in the story, Willie befriends as though she was talking to someone
Geoffrey Sanderton, an artist who has else. He felt like two people. He knew she
lost a leg and an ear in the war and lives wouldn't accept the Will side of him, only
as a recluse in a "haunted" cottage. He the Willie, and he didn't feel real when
gives Will art lessons, and as the village she called him that." He soon understands,
gains students and loses teachers, Geoffrey though, that he is "Will inside
offers his services as a teacher. and out." Likewise, the names by which
Willie refers to Mr. Tom change in the
course of the novel. At first he refers to
him as simply "mister" until the old man
repeatedly requests that Willie call him
"Mr. Tom." At the end of the novel, Willie
calls him "Dad."
Social Sensitivity Topics for Discussion
Magorian sensitively depicts the 1. Mr. Tom Oakley has been a cross
devastating recluse for years. What has caused him
effects of child abuse. She to be that way? Do recluses usually have
shows how his mother's mistreatment a reason for their behavior?
has incapacitated Willie, but the narrative 2. Why is Willie so fearful and sure that
concentrates on his healing process. he is worthless? Describe him as he is
The only violent scene occurs at the when he first comes to live with Mr. Tom.
novel's climax, when Willie returns to 3. Mr. Tom shows great kindness and
his cruel mother. This scene makes the patience to Willie. Cite several examples
novel more appropriate for mature of Mr. Tom's good will from the early part
young adults, but it is vital to the plot, of the book.
giving Mr. Tom an opportunity to rescue 4. Willie has never had friends when
the boy he has learned to love. The he comes to the village. Tell how each of
description of Willie's tedious process of his new friends helps him change and
rehabilitation through love gives the develop into a happy, confident boy.
novel an optimistic tone without glossing Why is Zach a perfect best friend for
over the horrible effects of child Willie?
abuse. 5. If you could choose any of the characters
The novel also sensitively portrays for a friend, which one would you
civilian life during wartime. Just as the like? Why?
residents of Little Weirwold work 6. Why is it important to the novel for
together to help Willie, they also make a Willie to return to his mother in London?
community effort to alleviate the suffering 7. When does Mr. Tom realize how
that war brings. When Zach dies in much he loves and needs Willie?
a bombing raid, the villagers mourn but 8. How does the London experience
also help one another to deal constructively prove Mr. Tom to be a hero?
with his death, and his friends find 9. Which other characters besides Willie
have problems and sorrows?
that Zach's generous spirit still plays a
10. In what ways does the story end
part in their lives. well for both Mr. Tom and Willie?
Ideas for Reports and Papers Related Titles
1. Research civilian life during World Like Good Night, Mr. Tom, Magorian's
War II, and compare conditions in England second novel takes place during the
and America during that period. World War II era. Lively, twelve-year-old
2. Research child abuse. What is its Virginia (Rusty) is evacuated to America
effect on the victims?Why do some during the war. After five years in New
people abuse children? Can this situation England with an affectionate bohemian
be changed? family, Rusty feels like an alien when
3. Seemingly simple activities, such as she returns to England and often refers
blackberrying with other children, contribute to America as "back home." Her shy
immensely to Willie's recovery mother, small brother, cold father, and
from a lifetime of abuse. Choose three domineering grandmother all are
events and describe how each contrib strangers to her and the only sense of
utes to Willie's recovery. kinship Rusty feels is toward her
4. Willie shows considerable talent as mother's friend in Devon, Lady Beatrice
an artist. Make a sketch book that might (Beatie). Miserable at boarding school,
have been his, according to descriptions Rusty finally makes friends with a boy
in the story. who also was an evacuee in America.
5. Willie also shows talent as an actor. Tracing Rusty's gradual readjustment
Write a play about your favorite part of to life in England, Back Home won
the book, and act it for your class. prompt recognition for its strong
6. Sometimes older people withdraw characterizations,
from society as Tom Oakley does. Investigate fast-paced narrative, and
the resources and activities that sympathetic portrayal of human relationships
are available for senior citizens in your during post-war hardships.
community. For Further Reference
McDonald, Christine. "Review."
Language Arts (April 1983): 506. Mc-
Donald commends Good Night, Mr.
Tom's characterizations and calls it "a
strong and satisfying novel."
"Review." Horn Book Magazine (June
1982): 299. A generally positive review
of Good Night, Mr. Tom that praises
Magorian's skill at characterization
but criticizes the narrative's excessive
"Review." New Yorker (December 6,
1982). Positive review of Good Night,
Michelle Magorian 477
"Review." Reading Teacher (December
1982): 337. Positive review praising
the novel's insights into child abuse
and separation anxiety.
Mary H. Appleberry
Stephen F. Austin State University
Goodnight Mr. Tom
Role of Geoffrey – what life lessons did he teach Tom
he helped Will deal with Zack's death.
Role of Zach
Role of children
meaning of friendship.
because Willie becomes known as "Will," an energetic and lovable friend,
and not the shy and obedient evacuee