Goodnight Mr. Tom Summary

Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr. Tom

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Goodnight Mr. Tom Summary

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Goodnight Mr. Tom, a children’s novel by Michelle Magorian published in 1981, tells the story of a young boy facing abuse, who is relocated to the countryside to the care of an elderly recluse, Mr. Tom, in the wake of WW2.

At the height of WW2, William, a young boy who lives in London, is sent to the countryside to escape the onslaught of London. He lives with Mr. Tom, a widower who lives near a church as William’s mother had requested. William has been abused physically and emotionally by his mother who believes that people are evil and to bring them closer to God, they must be punished continually for their sins.

Mr. Tom is bad-tempered and distant, but when he realizes the full extent of William’s ordeal, he takes pity on him and begins to form a relationship with him. He treats him with kindness and understanding. He educates him and helps him to make friends in the town.

William takes a turn for the better, making friends and becoming particularly close with Zach, a fellow evacuee who is Jewish. Tom is also transformed by William being under his care. We find that he lost his wife and infant son to scarlet fever years earlier and became a recluse after this loss.

Later, William’s mother demands he return to her in the city. She claims she has been sick, and when William returns, he believes he can help his mother to recover. He finds out that his mother has had another baby, a girl, and she is furious about William’s experiences under Tom’s care. She hits William on the head and knocks him out. When he comes to, he has been locked under the stairs, tied to a set of pipes with the baby in his arms.

Tom meanwhile has a premonition that something is wrong with William. He ventures out of his town for the first time and makes his way to London. He manages to find Tom’s neighborhood and convinces a policeman to kick down the door of William’s seemingly empty house. When he does, they are greeted with a horrific stench. They discover William and the baby, who has died.

William goes to the hospital, but he is under heavy sedation to keep him calm and from screaming and disturbing the other children in the ward. Tom is told that William will likely end up in a children’s home, but Tom is unable to bear William’s distress and kidnaps him from the hospital. They return to Tom’s town.

William blames himself for the death of his sister, and for his mother’s treatment of him, but Tom helps him see that it is not his fault. When William’s favorite teacher has a baby, William finds out that babies need two people to be created, and although his mother told him a great deal about sin, she was having a relationship with a man outside of marriage.

The authorities finally trace Tom, and they tell William that his mother has died. She committed suicide by drowning. He has no other relatives, and they want to place him in the children’s home. Tom steps in and agrees to keep William as they finally feel like family.

Everything seems well. Tom, William, and Zach take a brief holiday by the sea. Zach receives the news that his father has been injured in the war, and Zach hurries home to be with him. They say goodbye; this is the last time William sees him. He finds out that Zach has been killed, and the grief is too much. Zach’s guardian gives William Zach’s bike, and while William is riding it, he realizes that Zach will always be with him. At the very end, William rides Zach’s bike, which impresses Tom, and he finally refers to Tom as “Dad.”

Goodnight Mr. Tom is a story of the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of love and kindness. When William first arrives, he is broken physically and mentally. He believes that he is deserving of his mother’s abuse, and his reactions to things that seem normal to us are baffling. When Tom realizes the extent of his condition, he changes his behavior towards him to show William kindness that he has never experienced.

William is confused by this behavior, but eventually, responds and begins to heal from his abuse. In turn, Tom begins to experience the love of someone like a son. Because of his own past, this experience is healing for him just as it is for William. Kindness and love can transform the broken parts of their spirits.

Both Tom and William are examples of the resilience of the human spirit. Both endured grief in their lives and shut themselves off from human interaction as a result. When they find each other, they can experience family in the way both had hoped for. It is incredible what power love and kindness have in correcting a course of life that was previously only full of pain.