Thank You Mister Tom

by Gurpreet Sihat

I hate broken spines. 

I’m talking about books, in case that wasn’t obvious. A broken spine, dogeared corners, doodles in the margins… don’t even get me started on pages that are practically falling out. It’s the reason I don’t lend out books unless I’m willing to part with them forever or know the borrower will return them in pristine condition. 

It’s funny how often people question whether I’ve really read the books I own. They see them as perfect as the day they were bought and cannot believe I’ve read them, sometimes multiple times. There are only four exceptions: an abridged, illustrated version of Black Beauty, the illustrations of which I traced so often that you can see the dents from my pencil and the cover’s damaged from the way I would lie it flat on the floor; Little Women and What Katy Did, both of which I used to read in the garden while sitting on the hammock and likely saw a lot of weather damage more than anything; and Goodnight Mister Tom, with its broken spine, pages discoloured by age and edges battered from all the times I fell asleep with it in bed with me. 

This Sunday I watched the 1998 adaptation starring John Thaw. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book or seen this adaptation. Maybe no longer having to read in bed with the sheets over my head and a torch in my hand, shoving the book beneath my pillow whenever I heard someone coming up the stairs, is the reason. Maybe I just didn’t need it like I once did. Either way, though I remembered how much it meant to me, I realised I’d forgotten why. 

For those of you who haven’t read or seen Michelle Magorian’s Guardian Children’s fiction Winner, it’s the story of an eight-year-old boy evacuated to the English countryside during World War II. There, he’s looked after by a reclusive widower, Tom Oakley. It’s with Mister Tom that he finds his escape from an abusive mother, learns to read and write, makes friends, and becomes a child instead of the timid little ghost he’d begun the story as. It deals with everything from war to abuse and suicide. And while some argue that it’s too much for children to be dealing with, I think it’s one of the greatest children’s books ever written.  

Goodnight Mister Tom is the reason I know the words to It’s A Long Way to Tipperary. It was the first time I heard of Dunkirk. Thinking about it now, despite living next to an RAF base, it was likely also the first place I ever saw a spitfire, igniting a curiosity that led to me learn all about the air force from my veteran neighbour. It was the book that told me to be a child for as long as I possibly can, even in the midst of ‘adult’ things. It taught me that nothing is forever, so make the most of it while you can. It taught me how to deal with death. 

Goodnight Mister Tom taught me that your family are the ones who love you no matter what, who encourage you and celebrate your triumphs however small, and who are always there when you need them the most. It taught me that those people are not necessarily the people you’re blood related to, but the people you choose – and those who choose you. 

Goodnight Mister Tom taught me that you’re not the cause of everyone’s problems, even when you’re told you are. That no matter what you do, you can’t please everyone, and you likely can’t change their minds about you. It taught me that you can be abused by the people you’re closest to, and that that’s wrong, even if you think it’s out of love. That one is a hard lesson and one I’m still learning. 

Goodnight Mister Tom taught me kindness and compassion. It taught me to help those in need. To get up, brush myself off, and try again whenever I fall. It taught me that the smallest, simplest of gestures can go further than you believe them to. It’s the reason that, should I ever have money enough and means, I want to foster – though I’m least a decade away from that so I’ll do my best to help in other ways until that time comes. 

Love breeds love. Compassion breeds compassion. Kindness breeds kindness.

Right now, we’re all struggling in one way or another. But we’re so much better off than other people out there in world. If there’s one thing we can do right now, it’s to reach out to those around us. It doesn’t have to be in the form of money or material things. Just simply show some kindness. Some compassion. Lend a hand to people who need help, an ear to people who need to talk, a kind word to people who are struggling. Who knows, maybe we’ll find that we can heal ourselves in the process.

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