Good Night, Mr. Tom takes place between 1939 and 1941, during World War II, when children were evacuated from London to escape the German "blitzkrieg" bombardment. When Willie Beech is evacuated, his mentally ill, fanatical mother stipulates that he must live beside a church. Thus, Willie ends up in the rural English village of Little Weirwold, where he lives in Mr. Tom Oakley's stone cottage adjoining a cemetery and a church. Other locales include London, where a climactic scene occurs, and the seaside fishing village of Salmouth, where the protagonists spend an idyllic two weeks near the book's end.
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Good Night, Mr. Tom traces Willie's development in a fast-paced story rich in sharp images. The third-person narrative occasionally delves into characters' thoughts, particularly Willie's, but Magorian generally relies on action and dialogue to reveal character. The realistic dialogue effectively uses dialect. As in Charles Dickens's novels, characters' seemingly minor actions or habits suggest a great deal about their personalities or emotional states. For instance, in the first few chapters, Willie compulsively pulls up his socks to hide the cuts and bruises that cover his bony shins because his mother has convinced him that the marks left by her beatings are proof that he is evil. At the end of the book, Willie's request to ride Zach's colorful bicycle indicates that he has come to terms with Zach's death and that he is ready to celebrate his friend's life.
Magorian accurately captures the psychology of an abused child. Willie's mother has taught him that dogs are poisonous, so when Mr. Tom's dog approaches him for the first time, Willie holds Sammy at bay with a stick and threatens to kill him. As Mr. Tom takes the stick from Willie's hand and prepares to throw it for Sammy to fetch, Willie believes that Mr. Tom is about to beat him. Willie again misinterprets an innocent gesture when he thinks that Mr. Tom is preparing to brand him with the poker that the old man is using to stoke the fire. Willie does not exactly distrust Mr. Tom; he simply...
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Magorian sensitively depicts the devastating effects of child abuse. She shows how his mother's mistreatment has incapacitated Willie, but the narrative concentrates on his healing process. The only violent scene occurs at the novel's climax, when Willie returns to his cruel mother. This scene makes the novel more appropriate for mature young adults, but it is vital to the plot, giving Mr. Tom an opportunity to rescue the boy he has learned to love. The description of Willie's tedious process of rehabilitation through love gives the novel an optimistic tone without glossing over the horrible effects of child abuse.
The novel also sensitively portrays civilian life during wartime. Just as the residents of Little Weirwold work together to help Willie, they also make a community effort to alleviate the suffering that war brings. When Zach dies in a bombing raid, the villagers mourn but also help one another to deal constructively with his death, and his friends find that Zach's generous spirit still plays a part in their lives.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Mr. Tom Oakley has been a cross recluse for years. What has caused him to be that way? Do recluses usually have a reason for their behavior?
2. Why is Willie so fearful and sure that he is worthless? Describe him as he is when he first comes to live with Mr. Tom.
3. Mr. Tom shows great kindness and patience to Willie. Cite several examples of Mr. Tom's good will from the early part of the book.
4. Willie has never had friends when he comes to the village. Tell how each of his new friends helps him change and develop into a happy, confident boy. Why is Zach a perfect best friend for Willie?
5. If you could choose any of the characters for a friend, which one would you like? Why?
6. Why is it important to the novel for Willie to return to his mother in London?
7. When does Mr. Tom realize how much he loves and needs Willie?
8. How does the London experience prove Mr. Tom to be a hero?
9. Which other characters besides Willie have problems and sorrows?
10. In what ways does the story end well for both Mr. Tom and Willie?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research civilian life during World War II, and compare conditions in England and America during that period.
2. Research child abuse. What is its effect on the victims?Why do some people abuse children? Can this situation be changed?
3. Seemingly simple activities, such as blackberrying with other children, contribute immensely to Willie's recovery from a lifetime of abuse. Choose three events and describe how each contributes to Willie's recovery.
4. Willie shows considerable talent as an artist. Make a sketch book that might have been his, according to descriptions in the story.
5. Willie also shows talent as an actor. Write a play about your favorite part of the book, and act it for your class.
6. Sometimes older people withdraw from society as Tom Oakley does. Investigate the resources and activities that are available for senior citizens in your community.
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Like Good Night, Mr. Tom, Magorian's second novel takes place during the World War II era. Lively, twelve-year-old Virginia (Rusty) is evacuated to America during the war. After five years in New England with an affectionate bohemian family, Rusty feels like an alien when she returns to England and often refers to America as "back home." Her shy mother, small brother, cold father, and domineering grandmother all are strangers to her and the only sense of kinship Rusty feels is toward her mother's friend in Devon, Lady Beatrice (Beatie). Miserable at boarding school, Rusty finally makes friends with a boy who also was an evacuee in America. Tracing Rusty's gradual readjustment to life in England, Back Home won prompt recognition for its strong characterizations, fast-paced narrative, and sympathetic portrayal of human relationships during post-war hardships.
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For Further Reference
McDonald, Christine. "Review." Language Arts (April 1983): 506. McDonald 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 detail.
"Review." New Yorker (December 6, 1982). Positive review of Good Night, Mr. Tom.
"Review." Reading Teacher (December 1982): 337. Positive review praising the novel's insights into child abuse and separation anxiety.
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