Michael Morpurgo: Private Peaceful (2003) Literature and War Readalong May 2014

Private Peaceful

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.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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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.

25 thoughts on “Michael Morpurgo: Private Peaceful (2003) Literature and War Readalong May 2014

  1. What a feat to write about a gruesome war in a manner that’s fitting for young adults. I think I’d really like reading this one, Caroline.
    Ypres was such a terrible place to be during WWI. I’ve read brief accounts of the battles there and they were gruesome.

    • I think it captures the essence of WWI without overpowering the reader. Any reader for that matter.
      I was a bit torn at first because I thought I knew how it would end but I didn’t.
      I’d be interested to hear what yu think of it.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! It is interesting to know that the whole story happens over a night with a lot of flashbacks. It is wonderful to know that Morpugo has managed to make the reader feel the horror of war without describing the details. It looks like he is a great children’s writer. Your description of 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” – made me think of the movie ‘Paths of Glory’. Have you seen it? It is sad that the ending is harrowing. I hope to read this book one day and discover more. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I was not sure what to think of it at first as I was afraid the end would be too predictable but there’s a twist.
      I’ve seen Paths of Glory and think it’s one of the best WWI movies.
      I can see why Morpurgo is so successful. The writing is smooth and the charcaters are so likable you care for them. I think he gets the right balance between revealing and toning down.

  3. I read this not long after it came out as one of the teachers in a school I worked in had read it to her Year 6 class and the kids had loved it. I thought it was brilliantly done and with the kids in that class it was pitched perfectly between a story they could engage with while at the same time giving them an understanding of what it was like for those who fought in the trenches. Years later the BBC Schools radio did a series of radio plays for it and it was great too.

    • Thanks for that comment, Col. Very interesting. i was wondering how kids would think about it.
      He did a really great job. He mentions so much that a child would know from there own life and could identify with – although it’s another era – and the war bits were well done too.
      No sugar coating but not too much.
      I can understand now why he’s so liked.

  4. Thanks for this great review Caroline.

    I think that books like this are actually important. Though I believe that the actual experience of war cannot be transmitted in a book, I think that too many people grow into adolescence thing war is a video game. This is not just true of young people as it was true of my 1980s era generation too.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      It is important and I also think that chldren should be made aware – but not in a gruesome way.
      I think these are charcaters they can really care for and therefore it will make it possible to imagine how sad it was.

      • Not my kind of book Caroline (the kid’s stuff) but you certainly raise the idea of how the subject is treated for children’s books. I can remember reading all sorts of Viking stories as a child, fiction books, of course, and the history of the subject matter was minus most of the violence.

        • I love Children’s books but I tend to prefer those with a fanatsy element. I never read a book with this type of historical background for children. It was really interesting to see how he pulled it off.
          I think you have to mention the violence or it would be dishonest but not create pictures in the mind.

  5. My library did not come through so I had to read it on Kindle today. BTW this is the first book I have read on a device. For the first half, I was wondering what I had wasted money on. The home front scenes left me unimpressed. I don’t mind reading a young adult novel. Several are favorites of mine. But I was thinking about how would I justify recommending the book to my History classes. The book kicked in for me when the boys went off to war. The war chapters are good in depicting the war for teenagers and Morpurgo offers an excellent tutorial on trench life and combat. It is appropriately graphic for its audience. I think my students could learn a lot from the book. However, as I was reading I was sure the book would be predictable and I was sure I knew ahead of time what would happen. I am pleased to say that other than the most obvious plot point (who would end up raising the baby), Morpurgo did have some surprises up his sleeve. And the afterward saved me the time of having to research whether the court-martial was plausible. I loved the passion that inspired the story. I ended up liking the book after being convinced it was a poor choice for the readalong for the first half. I guess I’ll have to trust you more in the future. Three last points:

    1. I do not expect young aduly novels to be especially well written, but Morpurgo’s writing was very blah.

    2. The one inexcusable plot device was the reappearance of Hanley. That is allowed only once without groans and Remarque grabbed it in “All Quiet…”

    3. Although the book has several hoary war movie cliches, I suppose they would be fresh for teenagers. I did some eye rolling. Ex. the love triangle.

    • I pretty much agree with you. I was doubting the choice at first as well as it took a long time until it gt going but I assume that way, identification is guaranteed.
      I was wondering as well for what age group this was written I guess 8 – 12, not much older. I may be wrong.
      The writing was OK. Not sophisticated though.
      The return of hanley was a bit foreseeable but I forgave Morpurgo because there were some surprises in the end.

      • I think that this title is aptly classified “Young Adult.” All children from ages 8-11 would have a difficult time with some of the more abstract concepts portrayed, including the fact that Tommo is much older and is always thinking in ways uncommon to this young age group.

        I would judge the book to be definitely for ages 12-16, with enormous “crossover” potential. In children’s and YA lit, crossover is a term used to refer to books that are written expressly for YA, but that appeal so strongly to adults, that they seek out the book in the marketplace and the library. I think young adults 17+ are looking for a more graphic and gritty portrayal of the hardships of being on the front lines in battle, but I was amazed that the graphic, gory details were not at all necessary to convey the horrors of war.
        I agree that the early chapters may be hard-going for an age group that wants Action and Adventure from page one, but all in all, an excellent book, in my opinion.
        And I thank you so much for including it!
        Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

          • It’s the first part of the book that threw me off. While a kid (8+)might not understand everything the Colonel stands for, they might still identify with the rest. And Tommo’s quite young in those chpapters.
            Be it as it may – Morpurgo did a great job.

        • I’m very grateful for your comment. It’s hard to tell sometimes what age group something is written for.
          I thought that the early chapters and the easy style would appeal to younger readers but there are concepts that would be hard to grasp and the voice does sound older.

  6. I’d like to read this one. I was interested in how he made WW1 accessible in War Horse and this sounds like it takes it a bit further. I can only imagine what a challenge it is to write a children’s book on this subject.

    • It’s a challenge and he did really well. I’ve only seen the movie War Horse, so I can’t compare. This book contains everything that was horrible and typical for WWI. It’s a great way to introduce a child without traumatising him/her.

  7. I’ve just read Danielle’s review of this and have come over here to catch up on the discussion. My son read this in school and thought it was an excellent book. His girlfriend saw the theatre production made of it, called War Horse, and said that was outstanding too. Morpurgo seems to have found a powerful structure for his story, which is even more amazing when you think how young his intended audience was really. I don’t think his writing is blah – I think it’s tailored to a young YA range, and so his vocabulary has to be simple. Children of 11 and 12 do not notice literary devices or appreciate them!

    • Thanks for this, Litlove. I wouldn’t have called it blah but it’s unadorned. I also thought it was meant for a young pre YA audience. So 8-12.
      I’m glad to hear it works for kids. I wonder how they did a theater production of this. Sounds interesting. War Horse is another novel though. I think he wrote quite a few WWI novels.

  8. I was completely unfamiliar with Michael Morpurgo before reading this book–especially until I read the afterword and it dawned on me that he is the author of War Horse (which was just in Omaha by the way). I think I went into this story knowing very little–other than it was a YA novel and I am sort of glad as I didn’t know enough to be worried by what was coming, if you know what I mean. I wondered about the chapter titles, but was too caught up in the Peaceful boys’s upbringing to give the war part much thought. So it all came together really nicely (as much as a war story can, of course) for me. I still am not sure I will ever pick up (or see) War Horse, but I think I will have to read more about Morpurgo. This was a great choice–is this the first YA novel we’ve read…must go back now and check out the reading lists….

    • I saw War Horse at the cinem and reviewe it on the movie blog. I found it very hard to watch, although it’s a movie for an a younger audience.
      We’ve read a Dutch novel last year Witer in War Time which was a YA novel as well, but other than that, it’s the first.
      It had similarities with How Many Miles to Babylon? didn’t you think? That’s why it was obvious for me how it would end, only I got the person wrong, which was well done, I thought.

  9. I’m always surprised when I come across a war novel for younger readers that’s really well done. I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while now, but I was so swamped with my daughter’s graduation activities that I wasn’t able to read it for the discussion. Maybe I’ll have time soon and come back to post my thoughts.

    • Anna, I’m confident, you’ll like this. It’s well-done, with a slow build up but then it packs a real punch. Quite heartbreaking.
      I’d love to hear what you think if you get them time.

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