Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Private Peaceful



Michael Morpurgo is a somewhat prolific English writer of childrens books. He doesn't seem to be afraid of any topic, his breadth is vast, nor any age group, as he has written picture books, early readers, junior novels and everything all the way up to complex books for adolescents and adventurous adults. He discovered his talent and aptitude for storytelling during his years as a primary school teacher in Kent as a young man. He was instrumental in setting up the office of the Children's Laureate in Britain, and then became the third author to hold that office from 2003-2005.

 I haven't read more than a handful  of his books so far, and this is the one that has touched me most. It's astonishing. The title was inspired by a name on a gravestone in Ypres, Belgium, scene of an infamous battle in World War I. Private Peaceful is an account of a single night, Tommo our young narrator is preparing to stay awake all night. We're not sure what he's waiting for, but we know that he is waiting. We learn that he's alone, "the others have left", he doesn't want to sleep, he doesn't want to eat, he wants to remember. Chapters mark off the slow passage of time, as this seemingly endless night creeps forward towards dawn. Five past ten. Twenty to eleven. Nearly quarter past eleven.

The first section of each chapter, which may only be a paragraph or two tells us of this night. The rest of the chapter fills in the wonderful backstory of Tommo growing up with his brothers Charlie and Big Joe in rural England at the start of the twentieth century. Their father dies in a logging accident at the very start of the story. Tommo and his brothers are then either left essentially to their own devices, as their mother must go to work full time (and didn't children have a lot more freedom to roam and play back then?) until they come under the watchful and disapproving eye of Grandma Wolf. Big Joe is a simple, but happy lad, brain damaged after a bout of neonatal meningitis in the pre-antibiotic era, fond of singing Oranges and Lemons, and a lover of all creatures great and small. Charlie is the big older brother, who keeps an eye out for Tommo, and who eventually wins the girl that Tommo too loves.

Gradually the two story lines converge to bring us to that fateful night where Tommo is keeping watch. The last 20-30 pages or so is devastatingly sad. I read it with tears streaming down my face- and this was my second read of this book, I initially read it a few years ago. I loved it both times. Simply written. A great structure that naturally builds suspense and culminates in a powerful climax.

(Re)read as part of my 1001 quest

8 comments:

Susan said...

This sounds like a wonderful book. I'll have to pick the right time to read it though. Sometimes I'm just not in the right frame of mind for devastatingly sad.

Louise said...

It is a wonderful book Susan. And I fully understand about needing to pick the right time for books like this. The early part is lighter and engaging, so you get swept along, and by the time you get to devastatingly sad you're frantically flipping pages, and wondering if you can sneak in "one more chapter" before you have to stop reading.

Hilary said...

what age is it aimed at Louise?

Louise said...

I'd think teenagers upwards Hilary. My 1001 childrens books you must read book classes it in the 12+ section. Which is reasonable I think. All the world war stuff is quite confronting.

readerbuzz said...

I'm not sure why, but I was not swept away by Morpurgo. Too sad for me right now, perhaps.

Louise said...

It is very sad. This is still my favourite of the limited number of Morpurgo books that I've read. I didn't think Kensuke's Kingdom had the same wow factor. I've managed to buy 3 more of his books this weekend, at the great $5 book sale on in my town.

Charlotte said...

I will add it to my list--thanks!

Brona Joy said...

Definitely sounds like one I will have to try!
Thanks for such a thoughtful review Louise.