Private Peaceful Summary

Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful

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Private Peaceful Summary

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Michael Morpurgo’s novel for older children, Private Peaceful, published in 2003, is the story of three brothers as told by the youngest brother looking back on his memories of fighting in WWI.

The story opens with Tommy “Tommo” Peaceful, the youngest of three brothers, standing watch in the night, waiting for an event that will happen in the morning. We are not told what that event is. Tommo is thinking about his life before the Great War. He has two older brothers, Big Joe who has a learning disability, and his middle brother, Charlie. Together, he and Charlie looked after Big Joe.

Tommo remembers the adventures they had together running around their neighborhood. They went skinny-dipping, much to their mother’s great embarrassment. They tormented their great-aunt, a woman they refer to as “Grandma Wolf.” They had the privilege of seeing an airplane together, the first people of their village to do so.

Tommo is in love with Molly with whom he had fallen in love at first sight in school. As they grew up and the war spred across Europe, Charlie and Molly began seeing each other. Charlie had always looked out for Tommo, but Tommo felt left out as Charlie and Molly developed a secret relationship, which Tommo did not understand. He was heartbroken when Charlie and Molly rushed into marriage at the local church before he and Charlie signed up to fight even though they were not old enough.

Tommo remembers the events leading to the present moment. Forced to head to Belgium to fight, he and Charlie encounter a sergeant with a terrible demeanor. They call him “Horrible” Hanley. They move to the front lines of battle where they face the horrors of war. Tommo is injured, and Charlie is ordered to leave him behind. When he will not do that, he is charged with cowardice and disobeying a direct order.

As a result, Charlie is condemned to execution as per the British army’s strict policy. The last chapters of the book are a countdown to the moment when Charlie will be executed at dawn. He goes before the firing squad singing his favorite childhood song.

The novel returns to the present moment. Charlie and Molly were expecting a baby — that was the reason for their hasty wedding. When Tommo returns home from the war, he swears that he will look after Molly and Charlie’s baby, “Little Tommo.”

Love is a major theme of the book. Many different kinds of love presented: there is the love the brothers feel for one another and their mother. They look after each other in turn with Charlie and Tommo taking care of Big Joe, Charlie looks after Tommo, and Tommo refuses to let Charlie go to war alone.

Charlie and Molly share romantic love, while Tommo’s love for Molly is unrequited. Although Tommo loves Molly and is jealous when Charlie and Molly begin spending more time together, he is happy for them in the end. He promises to take care of their baby, a continuation of the familial love experienced between the brothers.

There is also the love of country. Although Charlie is forced to join the military when the war starts, both brothers feel it is their duty to fight for their country. Charlie’s love for his brother proves stronger than his love for country, leading to his execution, but the ever-present sense of duty is still there.

The novel also deals with the unfairness of life; the way things do not always turn out the way one hopes. We do not realize at the beginning of the book that the story is counting down to the hour when Charlie will be executed for disobeying orders. When this moment comes, it feels like a betrayal. The author’s point of examining the harsh consequences Britain imposed on soldiers who committed acts of “cowardice” and were summarily executed is one of understanding and grace.

Throughout the book, we do not know what is coming; we only know that Tommo is waiting in the dark for something that is more horrific than what he has experienced in war. The author uses these memories to lay the background and to build our suspense so that we are unable to look away when we discover that Charlie is about to die. This act is the final one in the great tragedy of war.

The book offers a tender look at family and how war affects relationships. Charlie is almost a Christ figure, but this rarely feels hyperbolic because it is the lens of Tommo’s love that renders him in such light. It is a tender novel about love and honor.