Willie Beech, a timid nine year old, is evacuated from Deptford to Sussex, and is billeted with Tom Oakley, a widower who has allowed himself to become bitter and misanthropic since his wife and child died of scarlet fever forty years prior. Each causes the other to open out, as Tom helps Willie to read and write and encourages his talent for drawing. Willie is called back to London by his mother. Tom gets worried when he does not write and goes looking for him. He finds Willie tied up and emaciated with his mother’s illegitimate baby lying dead in his arms. His mother is later found to have committed suicide. Tom takes Willie back to the country and adopts him.
That this was the author’s first book is not surprising: the style and dialogue are erratic in places. However, the sheer warmheartedness of it all carries you away. The story is a little romanticised: the crusty old widower whose soft heart is revealed by the timid boy who grows up and makes friends in the country air. Although the principal young character is a nine year old, the story contains some aspects which might be little understood by and possibly frightening for children that young. The boy himself does not really understand them as they happen. In particular, Willie’s mother is from the start a religious bigot, and given to beating Willie in self-righteous anger. When he finally realizes that her baby has died, he feels guilty for not having been able to look after it. Later, as Willie is coming to terms with what has happened, his friend Zach explains in a natural and moderately delicate way how babies come about, something which was preying on Willie’s mind. The explanation is really quite good, but parents may wish to get in first. The final tragedy in the book is at first a cause for despair in Willie, but ultimately forces Willie to reassess himself and his relationship to those around him.
It has to be said that the author explains the more distressing matters, especially the various deaths and Willie’s mother’s actions, delicately and usually at a distance so that you understand clearly what has happened without her descending into sordid details. However, this very fact may make it difficult for slightly younger readers to realise what is going on.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.