British author Michael Morpurgo is one of the most appreciated writers for Children. He was the UK Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005 and Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel in 2007. He won many prizes for his fiction.
Tommo Peaceful is the narrator of Private Peaceful. He begins his story at five past ten in the evening, after everyone else has left him. He awaits the next day with anxiety but he doesn’t want any company or distraction. He wants to spend the night thinking about his life. The chapters are all given a specific time and each intro to the chapter describes briefly Tommo’s surroundings and his state of mind. After the intro Tommo tells us in flashbacks his story, from the idyllic childhood in the English countryside to the trenches of WWI.
Tommo is one of three boys. At the age of nine his father dies in an accident and Tommo feels responsible for his death. Although he and his older brother Charlie are very close, he never mentions what happened in the woods, the day their father dies. They have an older brother Big Joe who had Meningitis as a child. He can’t go to school and is easily agitated but they are still very fond of him.
Their father’s death marks a transition from a carefree life to a life of some hardship. They are at the mercy of the Colonel in whose cottage they live. The cottage is tied to a function and after the death of the father, who was the forester, they would have to leave. The Colonel’s estate is big and many people and families work for him and so Tommo’s mother is offered a position at the big house, and they can stay in the cottage.
The years go by and there is happiness and heartache in equal measures. When WWI breaks out, they don’t think they are affected. Tommo is only 16 and Charlie, who is two years older, doesn’t think of volunteering but in the end they are forced. Although Tommo is too young, he doesn’t want to abandon Charlie and pretends he’s older. Finally they are shipped to France together. From there they move on to Belgium and stay near Ypres for the following months.
They don’t see any action at first but eventually they come under heavy fire. From then on we get an impression of everything that was typical or important during WWI: trench warfare, mustard gas, rats, rain, mud, high numbers of casualties among men and horses, arbitrariness of orders, sadism of the high command, absurdity of it all . . . While it’s usually key to show but not tell, Morpurgo often tells but doesn’t show. He stays away from graphic descriptions or anything that you could call gruesome. We still get the horror because we see how it affects Tommo. Most of the time, we just don’t get to see what he sees. I think that’s a great way to go in a Children’s book.
What works particularly well in the book is the contrast between the childhood and teenage years and the war scenes. Morpurgo takes a lot of time to introduce us to his characters and to make us care for them. While some of the secondary characters are a bit stereotypical, the main characters Charlie and Tommo are well-developed. Their relationship is very close and they would give everything for each other.
As I wrote in the introduction to this month, I was particularly interested to see how a Children’s author would handle a WWI book from the point of view of a soldier. I think Michael Morpurgo did an admirable job. I’m sure, children will get a good impression for the particularities of WWI. And they will care for the characters and feel deeply about the end. For an adult reader who has read some very similar books for adults – Strange Meeting and How Many Miles to Babylon come to mind – it was not exactly a huge revelation, but in spite of that, I found the twist at the end harrowing.
Private Peaceful is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel Fear – La Peur by Gabriel Chevallier. Discussion starts on Friday 27 June, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.