[book review] Goodnight, Mister Tom

Goodnight, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian is a less well-known children’s classic, which had enthralled me as a teen. Perhaps enthrall isn’t quite the word. It gripped me. Emotions aren’t something I comprehend on a regular basis, but Goodnight, Mister Tom has the power to stir even this Spockian reader.

Now, as a grown and independent woman who has become more experienced and well-read over time, I have returned to this novel only to find that it has withstood the test of time. In the world we now live, inflated concepts of intersectionality and individualist voice have given rise to waves of victim entitlement. In a frenzy to establish their entitled privileges in this topsy-turvy new world order, those who legitimately or not so legitimately feel victimized rush to proclaim their victimization, carrying it as a badge of identity, a warrant to virtue-signal, and a justification for any misbehavior on their part. Personal responsibility having been firmly removed from the self and placed on the society which “nurtured” their victimization, the hegemony which controled them, perhaps the patriarchy which oppressed them, and so on, these individuals seek to find healing and empowerment.

During such times as these, one can’t help but notice the influx of hurt-comfort fanfiction, wherein are chronicled the empowerment of the disenfranchised, the misunderstood, and the virtuous oppressed. It is a toned down French Revolution within mainstream media and pop culture. No better example can be found than within my own fandom of Loki, where one may find fans incapable of admitting Loki’s agency within Avengers Assemble. He is misunderstood. He is unloved. He is ostracized from society. He is inflicted with internalized racism. He was tortured. He was forced into doing it. He is sexually confused. Some of this is canonically supported. Some of it is not. Either way, these kinds of readers or writers refuse to admit to the label of villain for Loki (a discussion for another time) and see only a need for healing.

But is this really about healing? And what about growth?

Back to Goodnight, Mister Tom. Michelle Magorian draws a fine distinction and coorelation between healing and growth. I do think Kristen Randall’s The Only Alien on the Planet handles it more clearly, but we can still see a theme within Magorian’s work which I think is more appropriate for this day and age than ever.

Healing and personal growth must go hand in hand. At the beginning of the story, the metaphor for Will’s victimization is used in strong physical and mental symbols. We are repeatedly told that he is physically small. Will also minimizes himself socially in order to become invisible. Emotionally and educationally speaking, the eight-year-old is stunted.

Yet, Willie does not remain as he is. Willie becomes Will. He embarks on a journey not only of healing but also growth. He learns to run, to read, to produce, to opine, and to laugh. He recognizes his role in choosing to deny or to grieve personal loss. All of these things give us hope for Will’s future.

The author is also careful to show the reader that everyone has their own journeys of loss and hurt and healing and growth. Mister Tom lost a wife and newborn baby to scarlet fever in one day. George loses a brother. Annie Hartridge has her own loss (not specifying for spoiler sake). Carrie struggles with acceptance. Zach is a Jew. Many other things happen that I won’t mention, but it is apparent that Magorian isn’t interested in an emotional, feel good wankfest for intersectional victims by focusing on only one narrow view of one individual or one group of similar individuals.

What Magorian is interested in is the process of finding oneself a new identity after victimization. Within her book are dotted some thought-provoking moments, in particular something Mister Tom tells Will: “Everything has its own time”. A valuable lesson set within a time when an entire nation experienced loss as a whole.

What intersectional folk need to remember is that people actually need to heal, and they need time to do so, and having done so, they need to move beyond and past that to their new selves.

If Mister Tom doesn’t get past his hurt, can he help Will embrace his artistic talents? If Annie doesn’t move beyond her loss, can she be an emotionally stable mother? If Geoffrey can’t live with his newly crippled body and loss of friends and family, can he be in a position to help his community?

In the end, it is a choice. A hard one. A seemingly impossible one, but a necessary one if one wishes to choose life.

At the end, like Will, we may find ourselves growing.


Additional Note: Some folks may say that they are behaving in such a way since they are currently within a system of victimization. In order to break out of a system of abuse, perhaps certain actions become justified (ie. riots, violent protests, bombing, libel & slander). That is another kind of conversation that would definitely require consideration of personal moral and ethical convictions, as well as world-view. However, it is interesting to note two things within the novel.

Note #1: The role of legitimate advocacy as shown by Mister Tom. People may need to be helped by others outside the system. Those who are more objectively positioned are better able to mete out justice, take action, or provide suitable environments for those willing to heal. Although Tom commits an illegal action to save Will, it is done for the good of Will and relieves Will of the burden of being a victimizer on top of recovering from victimization. (See p.272) Will may show anger, sadness, and frustration, but hurting others is not the path to health.

Note #2: Personal sacrifice is required to grow. Will never gets his family back. Nor does he return to his old home and neighborhood. Geoffrey won’t necessarily be able to go back to his old stomping grounds either. What is important to note is that in healing and growth, sacrifice must sometimes be made. One must sacrifice one’s need for earthly justice, perhaps, or sacrifice one’s need to escape or run away. Will had to sacrifice peace of mind in order to process his loss. In the world today, people who are persecuted for differing faiths or worldviews are faced with a choice of death or leaving their homeland – sacrifice. Too many people who live within systems of victimization remain there because they are incapable or unwilling to sacrifice the comfort of a familiar environment and familiar emotions of hate, discontent, or bitterness. For example, those affected by online bullying continue to remain in such toxic environments instead of walking away from social media. Some would say by walking away from social media, the bullies win. I would argue that walking away from social media does not mean walking away from social media FOREVER, and furthermore, the bullies win when you believe them, not when you withdraw to a secure position in order to heal and return stronger. For some reason, I see a similarity to those afflicted with serious illness such as diabetes. To live with the victimization of oneself by one’s own body is hard. You must sacrifice all the goodies in life in order to survive. (How to live without hot chocolate… I do not know.) Over time, sadness, depression, and frustration may be processed with a positive attitude, and you begin to make a new life with minimal or no sugar. However, you have sacrificed much, not just to survive but thrive. This is part of growth.

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