Reading this novel gives you a great deal of information about the day-to-day lives of ordinary British people in 1914. It is narrated by Thomas or Tom Maggs, aged 12. The descriptions of the way people lived, what they ate, their behaviour and the type of work they did are all observed by a very curious boy. Tom has a great need to understand the world around him, especially now that World War 1 has broken out.
People become suspicious of others and with little hesitation, would report them as suspect enemy sympathisers.
Tom develops a friendship with a Scottish couple who have colleagues in Germany. This is enough for them to be under suspicion. The husband Mac (or Charles Rennie Macintosh, a famous architect) is arrested and interrogated. He is released but always viewed with suspicion.
Mac and Mrs Mac have come to Tom’s village to paint wild flowers. The artist couple live humbly in a shed. The love that they feel for each other is such a contrast to the family life that Tom is used to. Tom is given paper and paint by the artists and is allowed to spend hours watching them, or painting with them. In between times Tom has a job helping to make rope.
Tom’s passion and dream has always been around boats and escaping to sea. It seems unlikely that Tom could ever be a sailor, as he has a deformed foot. Again, an astonishing sign of the times lies behind this story.
The details Tom relates make the characters and the landscape come alive. He tells of his father’s drinking problem and family abuse. Other facts that he relate such as his sister getting silk stockings from a soldier, then becoming very sick every morning, needs no explanation.
Tom’s first twelve years describe in detail family life, village life and the uncertainty and fears about the War. It would have been interesting to have followed Tom’s life at later stages in his life, when he eventually became a sailor. This book is a work of historical fiction, and the author is to be commended on her research and detailed descriptions of those times.