Oxford has made me used to reading huge, obscure academic texts. There is, it has to be admitted, something exciting about creeping down to the depths of the lower Gladstone Link, rolling back the shelves and locating the treasure of some rare book on Medieval innkeepers. Lounging on the grass of Christ Church meadow perusing some article on Dirk Bogarde makes me feel a little like the Oxford scholars from Brideshead Revisited (ignoring the fact I’m a woman and therefore would likely be consigned to cooking for them). Yet I’m here to tell you to reject this academic lifestyle and take a break to read an incredible and unpretentious book – possibly for the first time since you started secondary school.
Michael Morpurgo shaped my childhood. I genuinely believe that Private Peaceful was what inspired me to take my first proper look into history as a concept when I first read it aged roughly ten. I probably didn’t fully understand some of the issues discussed, such as illegitimate pregnancy and court marshalling, but I do remember crying real, bitter tears at the tragic ending, where the two brothers – Tommo and Charlie, are separated for good.
The 2003 novel is set in the early 20th century, charting the upbringing of protagonist Tommo in a poor family in the depths of the English countryside. Themes of love and compassion run throughout the novel, from the gentleness of Tommo’s intellectually disabled older brother ‘Big Joe’ to his touching adoration of Molly, a slightly older girl with whom he is somewhat besotted from the day he meets her, yet ultimately marries Charlie. The surname of the brothers – Peaceful – is a slightly on the nose choice but reflects their true natures, and their idyllic, if challenging, childhood.
Yet the book moves to darker territories as Tommo and Charlie age. With the horrible retrospective knowledge of what was to come, we see the threat of conflict turn into the bloody World War One, and the brothers forced onto the battlefield. Throughout the novel older brother Charlie has consistently protected and defended Tommo, but the move from schoolyard fights to the actual Somme makes the often impulsive love of the brothers take a deadly turn. Although the two had faced bullies their whole lives, suddenly their power moves from a punch in the jaw to dictating the brothers’ lives, with devastating consequences.
The true strength of the book is it conveys, in beautiful prose, emotions ranging from primary school tears to the horror of bombings, whilst still being appropriate for those at the end of primary school and beginning of secondary school. Never patronizing or overly simplistic, it instead translates the complexity of adolescence in a way that made it resonate with me as much now as it did when I was devouring it under the desk in my year five classroom. Morpurgo is one of the best writers I have ever read, despite his younger audience, and other classics of his (and personal favourites of mine) include Kensuke’s Kingdom (1999), Running Wild (2009) and Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea (2006) novels that combine the fantastical and real to just the right degree to be truly captivating.
Perhaps I am slightly biased as a historian – one of my favourite parts of Morpurgo’s writing is the way his fiction is often richly rooted in the past, but I would encourage you to put down the textbooks and Pulitzer Prize winners just for a couple of days. Forget what you should be reading, and just immerse yourself in a book that is genuinely and simply beautiful.