Private Peaceful is in many ways a book about dealing with loss. As characters throughout the story find methods of coping, Morpurgo suggests that the best way to work through loss is not to linger but to find some means of moving forward. Family is presented as an especially potent source of comfort and support in times of grief throughout the novel, yet the most important factor in healing is to stop blaming oneself for events beyond one’s control. This is demonstrated through Tommo and his guilt for his father’s death. Morpurgo shows that guilt is often a natural accompaniment to grief, but that healing is only possible when one rids oneself of this guilt—just as Tommo eventually learns that he must accept that his father’s death was not his fault in order to move past it.
The death of Tommo’s father is the first great loss of the novel. He is killed as he protects a young Tommo from a falling tree, which crushes him instead. At first, Tommo’s family all find reassurance in their faith, in particular in their belief that their father has been reincarnated as the spirit of a swallow that appears in the church at the funeral. Big Joe in particular is deeply comforted by his unquestioning faith, believing indubitably that heaven exists and that his father will be “happy as the birds” in the afterlife.
Tommo, however, feels guilty for his father’s death because he knows that he jumped under the tree to save Tommo. Tommo therefore cannot share in his family’s comfort; instead, he feels he has a “horrible secret” and cannot bring himself to believe that his father is at peace nor to grieve properly for him as the rest of his family does. His guilt, then, directly inhibits his ability to heal.
Importantly, it is the reassurance and support of his family that ultimately helps relieve Tommo’s guilt. After Charlie tells him that he was not to blame for their father’s death (“It was the tree that killed Father, Tommo, not you”), Tommo is finally move past this early loss, one which had been haunting him since he was a child.
Tommo’s own healing, in turn, helps him become a stronger source of comfort for others. Shortly before Charlie’s own death, for example, Tommo does what he can to soothe his brother by telling him that he is not a coward, and certainly not “worthless” as the jury had claimed. This allows Charlie to face his death with dignity and peace and reiterates the power of accepting loss that is out of one’s control.
Towards the end of the novel, Tommo proves his ability to move past death without blaming himself. When he finds that the girl he is in love with, Anna, has died, he goes to mourn her, but then leaves once he has done so appropriately: “I knelt down and kissed the earth, then left her there.” He could blame himself, as Anna’s father in his grief blames Tommo for the war and tells him to leave him alone and “go to Hell.” This time, though, Tommo understands that Anna’s death is not his fault, and so despite his grief he is able to work through it.
The same is true when Charlie’s death finally arrives. Again, Tommo could blame himself. After all, Charlie dies partly because he was trying to protect Tommo, who was injured at the time. But once again, Tommo is able to accept Charlie’s death as being beyond his control, and after mourning his brother he again “turn[s] away and leave[s] him.” Once Tommo is able to rid himself of guilt, he is able to move on from loss, and this is of great importance to Morpurgo’s depiction of healing. There will always be ways to move on from grief, as long as one does not wrongly blame oneself for what has happened.
Grief, Guilt, and Family ThemeTracker
Grief, Guilt, and Family Quotes in Private Peaceful
He is on his back, his face turned away from me as if he doesn’t want me to see. One arm is outstretched towards me, his glove fallen off, his finger pointing at me.
A swallow swoops over our heads all through the prayers, all through the hymns, flitting from window to window, from the belfry to the altar, looking for some way out. And I know for certain it is Father trying to escape. I know it because he told us more than once that in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.
He told me once […] that your father was up in Heaven and could still see us easily from where he was. He was pointing upwards, I remember, and I didn’t understand exactly what he was trying to tell me, not at first. I thought he was just pointing up at the sky in a general sort of way, or at the birds maybe. But then he took my hand and made me point with him, to show me. We were pointing up at the church, at the top of the church tower. It sounds silly, but I think Big Joe believes that Heaven is at the top of the church tower.
I looked up at the church steeple, a dark arrow pointing at the moon and beyond, and tried with all my heart and mind to believe she was up there somewhere in that vast expanse of infinity, up there in Sunday-school Heaven, in Big Joe’s happy Heaven. I couldn’t bring myself to think it. I knew she was lying in the cold earth at my feet. I knelt down and kissed the earth, then left her there.
It is the moment. I have to do it now. It is my last chance. I tell him about how Father had died, about how it had happened, what I had done, how I should have told him years ago, but had never dared to. He smiles. “I always knew that, Tommo. So did Mother. You’d talk in your sleep. Always having nightmares, always keeping me awake about it, you were. All nonsense. Not your fault. It was the tree that killed Father, Tommo, not you.”
They tell me he walked out with a smile on his face as if he were going for an early-morning stroll. They tell me that he refused the hood, and that they thought he was singing when he died.