Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
HarperCollins Children’s Books: paperback published 2004: 192 pages
Thanks to libertyfallsdown for warning me about this book. I did indeed bawl my eyes out! As per usual, I find, when I read Michael Morpurgo. The guy is a genius… to write in a way that not only appeals to younger readers, but doesn’t patronise them is skill in itself – to write about such adult themes in such an accessible way is an even bigger feat. No doubt, War Horse is his most famous works – adapted for the stage and creating waves in the West End.
The story of Private Peaceful centres around Tommo, a misguided teen who is wrapped up in the mayhem and hell of World War I, like many his age were. Morpurgo creates a serene background, that seems peaceful and contented despite the tribulations that besets Tommo and his family when growing up. It gives a romantic image of growing up in the countryside in the early 20th Century.
Each chapter opens with a paragraph set in the “present”… Tommo is in a barn at night, you’re aware it must be in Belgium during the war, as it’s no secret about the setting, and you’re also vaguely aware that he is awaiting death. But why, when and how, is all to be discovered as Tommo narrates his way through his naive childhood and into the frightening reality of war.
Side-by-side with his older brother, Tommo is not your average courageous hero, but a normal boy, taken away from his family too young and thrust into a hellish situation that should never have been. You connect with Tommo on a very basic level, and as the story progresses, you feel the tension building as he counts down the hours and minutes to morning. It feels like you’re sat next to him in that cold, dark barn, singing Oranges and Lemons to a mouse as he reflects on his life. You share his fate.
The final chapter – nothing but a page and a half – is as heartbreaking as it is poetic. Although you already know the outcome, nothing prepares you for the feeling of loss. You feel the injustice that many must feel when a young boy is killed for something that was not his fault.
There is a note at the end of the book; the story of Tommo and his brother is not an unusual one. During World War I, hundreds of British soldiers were shot for desertion and cowardice, when in fact they were simply suffering from Shell Shock. Even to this day, the government has issued no pardon for these lost soldiers. It’s a terrible shame that the bravery of each and every one of those soldiers is tarnished by an accusation made by people who couldn’t understand, and that even one hundred years on, they cannot be shown to be the heroes that they were.
Morpurgo’s poetic and vivid description of World War I (first discovered when I read the beautiful War Horse and again in this novel) brings that piece of history to life. He might be a children’s writer in name, but in heart he writes for everyone.
Children’s Book Rating: 10/10
Next book: Back to the reading list and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I’m a complete fail and only bought it because it was discounted after spending over a certain amount in Waterstones. Likened to Twilight in one review, I’m going to admit I’m a little skeptical, but it is set in Oxford and so I am a little intrigued as well…