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Written by Jody Perry
Throughout the novel the theme of loss and the impossibility of dealing with it is explored. Tom Oakley experienced the shattering loss of his wife and newborn daughter and keeps them close as their final resting place is beneath the big tree at the end of the back garden. He deals with the loss by closing himself off emotionally and socially from anything that reminds him of his wife. George experiences the loss of his brother who is missing, presumed dead, very early on in the war; George never talks about his brother with his friends but mourns by wearing a black armband to school. Willie deals with loss three times - his best friend Zach is killed in London during the most severe bombing raid of the war thus far, his mother commits suicide and his baby sister does on his arms after their mother abandons them in the cellar space of her house without food. The loss of his sister brings feelings of guilt and the loss of Zach is an almost insurmountable wound that he only deals with after realizing Zach is still with him if he reminisces and keeps h alive (this advice was given to him by injured soldier Geoffrey who got over the loss of his best friend that way). The loss of his mother is actually not a loss on the traditional sense as her suicide frees Willie from the threat of further abuse from her. As well as these individual examples of loss the book takes place against a backdrop of war so the entire community is experiencing loss both personal and through people they know.
One of the themes of the book is the dark. The World War Two backdrop again adds to the theme as the village had to be in total darkness at night so not to enable German planes to see their targets, and there are multiple references to putting up the black out curtains. Tom constantly seems to rescue Willie from the dark and bring him to the light, for example, when Willie is having terrible nightmares in the dark and turns on the oil lamp as he comforts him. Similarly when Willie is tied up in the cellar on the dark at his mothers house it is again Tom who rescues him and literally shines a light onto him. Throughout the novel the children's me reference to how dark it is and the pitch-dark trip to Spooky Cott results in meeting Geoffrey the wounded air man who is living there as he comes to terms with his injuries.
Willis's mother is a brutal bully and her anise of Willie has made him terrified of everything. He has absolutely no self-esteem and believes that he has no talent for anything and no qualities that might make people like him. He believes these things because he mother tells him so. As well as being emotionally abusive, Willie's mother is terrifying in her physical abuse of him, going so far as to pack the thick leather belt that she beats him with in his things so that whoever he is evacuated to can continue in the same vein. This is also an indication that she genuinely believes that it is normal to use this kind of force on a child. Her abuse escalates into murder when she leaves baby Trudy in the cellar with Willie to starve to death.
Interestingly the theme is explored further when Tom sees the medical staff holding Willie face down on the bed in the hospital and pumping him full of a sedative to prevent him from crying out in his sleep. Their treatment of the children in their care seems very abusive and is not monitored by any authorities.
World War Two
As well as being the time in history that the novel is based in, the war is also one of the themes of the book. It is the reason for Willie's evacuation and for the presence in the village of Zach, a fellow evacuee. It alters everyone's role in the village and there is an "all hands on deck " attitude that makes Tom get more involved in the community. The war is also the reason for Zach's death and the mayhem in London after a bombing raid was the reason that Tom was able to take Willie home to Weirwold without being spotted. Each event that happens not only has the war as its backdrop but at its epicenter and none of the events that take place would have done so without the war being the catalyst.
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Zach represents all of the things William wishes to be. He truly admires his zest for life and appreciates his friendship. William cherishes Zach's ability to live life large and is devastated when he dies.