An unnamed man (later revealed to be named Tommo) decides that he must stay awake for the whole night. He can’t dream or sleep because “every moment” is “far too precious” to waste. Instead, he wants to remember “everything, just as it was.” He claims to have lived for nearly “eighteen years,” and he wants to remember them all on this particular night.
The narrative does not explain why this particular night is so special, or why Tommo should want to stay awake for every second of it. The reader does gather, however, that an eighteen-year-old named Tommo will be telling this story, and that it will likely be based on the events of his life so far.
Many years earlier, when Tommo is about five years old, Charlie (Tommo’s brother) is walking Tommo to school for the first time. Tommo is dreading going to school. He has not only heard all about the terrible teacher Mr. Munnings and his “raging tempers,” but to add to Tommo’s discomfort, he is being forced to wear a stiff new collar and heavy boots as part of his new school uniform.
This transition back into Tommo’s childhood is quite sudden within the narrative, encouraging readers to fully immerse themselves in this earlier tale of a young Tommo heading to school with his brother.
Big Joe (Tommo and Charlie’s other brother) has never had to go to school, which Tommo thinks is very unfair, given that Big Joe is much older than him and Charlie. Instead, Big Joe gets to stay at home with the boys’ mother. He spends most of his time sitting “up in his tree singing Oranges and Lemons, and laughing.” Tommo says that “Big Joe is always happy, always laughing,” and that Tommo wishes he could be as happy as Big Joe.
It is not clear at this point in the book exactly who Big Joe is, or why he doesn’t have to go to school, but he seems like a sweet and happy boy. Tommo later explains that Big Joe has had brain damage since he was a baby, but at this point, Morpurgo wants to introduce Big Joe simply as the happy young man that he is.
Charlie offers Tommo a piggyback ride to make him feel better. Charlie always understands when Tommo is feeling upset, and he “always knows how it is.” He is three years older than Tommo, so Tommo thinks that “he’s done everything and knows everything.” Charlie is also very strong, giving Tommo a piggyback all the way to school.
Charlie and Tommo obviously have a very deep level of understanding between one another. Charlie doesn’t need to ask Tommo whether he is upset; Charlie just knows. What’s more, he knows that a piggyback will make Tommo feel better, adding a playful dynamic to the boys’ relationship.
Tommo sees a dead crow “hanging from the fence” and guesses that it has been shot. He doesn’t pity the crow. He doesn’t like crows, because a crow killed the robin eggs that Tommo had been looking after in his garden a few months ago.
The dead crow hanging from the fence is a disturbing image in the midst of what is otherwise quite a sweet story of two brothers heading to school. This suggests that there will be a bit more darkness in this story than perhaps otherwise expected.
Tommo then thinks about his garden, and remembers burying his dead father’s belongings in the ground there. All of Tommo’s father’s things were buried in the garden after he died, including his pipe, boots, scarf, and gloves. Tommo buried the gloves, but looking at them made him feel terrible and guilty, because they reminded him of a secret about his father’s death, which Tommo claims he can “never tell” the rest of his family.
The narrative slowly reveals the details of Tommo’s father’s death. At first, all the reader knows is that the father’s belongings are buried in the ground, but soon it becomes clear that this is because he has died. Morpurgo doesn’t yet reveal why the sight of his father’s gloves makes Tommo feel so guilty, building the suspense of the novel.
Back on the journey to school, Charlie tells Tommo that the first day of school will be tough, but in general school is “not so bad. Honest.” Tommo doesn’t believe him—every time Charlie says the word “honest,” it’s because he’s lying. However, Charlie promises to look after Tommo when they get there. Tommo believes that part, because Charlie “always has” faithfully looked after Tommo.
It becomes clear here just how close the brothers are. Tommo knows Charlie well enough to guess when he is lying, but he also trusts Charlie completely when he promises to look after Tommo. He has no reason not to believe Charlie when he tells Tommo that he will look after him, because he has always protected him.
They arrive at school, and the children line up in two rows in the schoolyard. Mr. Munnings “cracks his knuckles,” and everyone falls silent. He spots Tommo, the only new boy, and warns him that at school, Mr. Munnings is Tommo’s “lord and master.” Tommo nervously mutters that he understands.
The cruel Mr. Munnings is the first example of a bullying presence in Tommo’s life. Mr. Munnings’ belief that he is Tommo’s “lord and master” seems ridiculous, but it illustrates the corrupting influence of power.
The children are ushered into their respective classes, with Tommo in the younger “Tiddlers” class and Charlie in the older “Bigguns” class. When he is separated from his brother, Tommo feels “truly alone.”
Tommo feels “truly alone” for the first time in his life when he is separated from Charlie at school, once again emphasizing the tight-knight bond that the brothers share.
Tommo’s shoelaces are undone, and his teacher, Miss McAllister, tells him to tie them. Tommo doesn’t know how to tie his own laces, so the teacher asks the girl sitting next to him, Molly, to help. Molly ties up Tommo’s laces, and then smiles at him. Tommo finally relaxes, as he can already tell he will be friends with Molly.
Molly is a great source of comfort to Tommo from the moment they meet. Tommo knows from one smile that they will be friends, suggesting a special understanding between Tommo and Molly from the very beginning of their friendship.
Tommo remembers his father. He recalls how it was just the two of them in the woods on the day of his father’s death, the day “when the tree came down.” Tommo’s father was a woodcutter, and sometimes Tommo would join him when he went to work. Tommo would ride on the back of his father’s horse with him, and when they arrived in the woods, his father used to tell Tommo to run off and enjoy himself. Tommo would play with the insects and plants. On this particular day, he started carefully burying a dead mouse under a tree.
This passage, which recounts the death of Tommo’s father, is suspenseful and poignant. This scene in the woods seems fairly idyllic so far, but the reader knows that something bad is about to happen, because this is the fateful day of Mr. Peaceful’s death.
Suddenly, Tommo hears a sound above him and realizes that a tree has started to sway. It is going to fall. His father tells him to “Run, Tommo!” but Tommo finds that he is paralyzed by fear. Tommo sees his father running towards him, grabbing Tommo and throwing him out of the way of the tree. Tommo loses consciousness, and it is only when he wakes up that he realizes his father has been crushed by the tree and is dead. Because of the way his father is positioned on the ground, it seems like his finger is pointed directly at Tommo. Tommo interprets this as a sign that he is to blame for his father’s death, as if the finger is pointing the blame at Tommo. Tommo takes his father’s gloves from his hands and goes for help.
The reader experiences events through Tommo’s eyes, feeling his terror as the tree begins to fall towards him, and then his ensuing horror as he realizes what has happened to his father. Because the reader has experienced Tommo’s emotions alongside him, it makes it easier to understand why he might later feel guilty for his father’s death. If Tommo had been able to move out of the way of the tree, his father wouldn’t have had to sacrifice his life in order to save his son. Tommo’s guilt is illustrated in the fact that he sees his father’s finger pointed directly at him, as if pointing to Tommo as the cause of his death. The book implies that the pointed finger is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it compounds Tommo’s guilt and trauma.
At the funeral, Tommo, his mother, Big Joe and Charlie sit on the front row. Their father’s coffin is placed in front of them. A swallow swoops around the church throughout the funeral service, and Tommo claims that he knows that the spirit of his father is contained inside the bird, and that it is “trying to escape.” His father had often told him that he wanted to be a bird in his next life “so he could fly free wherever he wanted.” Big Joe gets up and opens the door to release the bird. Once he has done this, and the swallow has escaped, Tommo knows that “Father is happy now in his next life.” Tommo knows that all four members of his family “are thinking the very same thing,” because they all smile at each other knowingly.
The idea that birds might be representative of happiness and freedom after death is referred to throughout the book, but it is first introduced here. The notion originates with Tommo’s father, who always claimed that he wanted to be a bird in his next life, because to him, birds represent freedom and happiness. It is remarkable that the whole Peaceful family seems to be thinking the same thing in the church, all believing that the spirit of Mr. Peaceful is within the sparrow without even having to explain it to one another. This collective thought emphasizes that the family is incredibly close, even in the midst of tragedy.
The Colonel steps up to the pulpit to make a speech about Tommo’s father, James Peaceful. During the speech, Tommo thinks of all the things his father used to say about the Colonel: mostly that he was a “silly old fart,” and sometimes names that were “much worse.” Tommo’s mother had always warned the family that the Colonel paid their father’s wages, so they should respect the Colonel if they “knew what was good” for them.
It is ironic here that the Colonel, whom Mr. Peaceful hated, is making the speech at Mr. Peaceful’s funeral. The scene demonstrates that people in positions of power (such as the Colonel) are often the ones who people listen to, even though they might not be the best person for the job at hand.
When everyone is gathered round the grave, Tommo wishes that the vicar would stop talking so that Tommo’s father could hear the birds singing one last time. Tommo’s mother tells Big Joe that his father is “not really in his coffin anymore” but “in heaven up there,” and “happy as the birds.”
Tommo cares more about the birds singing than he does about the vicar’s prayer, demonstrating that Tommo’s version of religion at this stage has less to do with dogma and ritual and more to do with nature.
As the family walks home after the funeral, Tommo reflects on his “horrible” secret: that he has “killed [his] own father.” If his father hadn’t been trying to save Tommo from the falling tree, he wouldn’t have died. Tommo decides that he can never tell anyone the truth, because he feels too guilty.
This is the first time that it is made explicitly clear just how responsible Tommo feels for his father’s death. His guilt is hinted at before, with the image of Mr. Peaceful’s finger pointed at Tommo, but here Tommo expresses it himself for the first time.