This book was my October choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s book. I read it during half term, when I also posted one of my occasional #KeepKidsReading series on building a children’s library. This book had been on my radar for years; I think my son read it in school so we have had a copy around the house for some time. It is set around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War and so I imagined it dated from the 1950s or ‘60s, but in fact it was first published in 1981 and won a number of prizes around the world, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It was made into a film starring John Thaw in 1998 which I am told is excellent – I have just bought the DVD and can’t wait to watch it.
When you read the book you quickly see how it could not have been written much before the 1980s, although even then it would have been quite ground-breaking; it deals with child abuse, amongst other things, pretty remarkable in a children’s book.
Londoner William Beech is eight years old when he first arrives at the home of ageing widower Tom Oakley. The novel is set in the rural village of Little Weirwold, but the county is not specified. I imagined Sussex or Hampshire – not too far from the capital. War has not yet broken out, though it seems inevitable, and children are being evacuated as a precautionary measure in anticipation of Nazi bombing. William is thin, sickly and covered in bruises, a timid, frightened character with poor literacy for his age. We soon learn why. His mother, a single parent, is an extremely religious woman who has controlled William through severe physical punishment and has kept him from school because she believes it to be a godless place. He lacks any confidence and self-belief because he has been told all his life that he is worthless. Tom Oakley is a gentle, patient man and seems instinctively to know how to deal with William’s problems, such as his persistent bed-wetting, which he handles with calm and grace. He quickly realises how fragile his young charge is and when William reveals, quite innocently, the way his mother has treated him, Tom is shocked but also determined that he will show him a different kind of life.
As William begins to thrive, so we learn a little more about Tom’s fragility too. As a young man, he lost his wife and their baby to scarlatina, a loss that affected him so deeply that he became almost a recluse, living in a small cottage beside the village graveyard with his dog Sam. His growing fondness for William leads him not only back into the arms of the Little Weirwold community, but also to question his continued self-imposed isolation. William is growing in confidence as he catches up academically and, for the first time in his life, makes a group of firm friends, particularly the flamboyant Jewish boy Zach, a fellow-evacuee, whose parents work in the theatre.
Some months into his stay with Tom, William receives a letter from his mother saying that she wants him to return home to London for a visit. William is reluctant and full of trepidation, but Tom persuades him that it is important he sees her, even though he has his own doubts about the wisdom of such a visit.
If you want to give this to your children to read, it is important you know what happens in the story, but if you’re reading the book for yourself and prefer the suspense, don’t read any further.
On his return to London, William’s mother behaves strangely and after an initial, encouraging show of slight warmth, she soon returns to her old critical and abusive habits. When they finally return to the house in Deptford William learns that his mother has given birth to a baby girl while he’s been away. While going out to collect William she left the baby alone in the flat with her mouth taped so the neighbours did not hear her crying. It is bleak and upsetting at this point.
Meanwhile, Tom, preoccupied with worry about William, decides, on an impulse, to go to London, sensing the boy might be in danger. It is an arduous journey, but he finally finds William. After a spell in hospital, where we learn that William’s mother has taken her own life, Tom effectively ‘kidnaps’ William after being told that the boy will most likely have to go into a children’s home following his discharge.
There is another sad thread to the plot involving Zach, something else to be aware of, but I’ll save that one from here.
I read the second half of this book in practically one sitting; I could not put it down! It is a tough read, though it does have a happy ending. It is quite dark in parts, but not in a frightening way. It will give young readers an insight into what life was, IS, like for some children, and an idea of the different ways abuse can manifest itself. It also shows that children can develop resilience and hope, and find happiness after even the most difficult start.
For that reason, I would recommend for no younger than 10-11, and to read it with your child, or at least in advance so you can handle any questions they might have. Twelve to thirteen year olds might like it too. It is plainly written with accessible language.
Highly recommended for adult readers!