There’s a sliver of a moon out there, a new moon. I wonder if they’re looking at it back home. Bertha used to howl at the moon, I remember. If I had a coin in my pocket, I’d turn it over and make a wish. When I was young I really believed in all those old tales. I wish I still could believe in them. But I mustn’t think like that. It’s no good wishing for the moon, no good wishing for the impossible. Don’t wish, Tommo. Remember. Remembrances are real.
Thomas Peaceful (Tommo) — a teenager from an English village — replays his entire life in his head, and uses his memories to stop him from falling asleep. He has eight hours to relish the special moments, recall the painful ones with courage and regret. Charlie Peaceful — his elder brother, his best friend — is going to be shot at 6 AM the next day, for he is pronounced guilty of insubordination and cowardice. The brothers are in the front line, fighting for England in the First World War.
Michael Morpurgo smothers me with a secret as Private Peaceful begins. The Peaceful brothers’s father dies because of Tommo’s carelessness. (Please do not worry. It is not a spoiler.) The little boy grows up with an inexplicable heaviness in his chest, as his family suffers after their father’s untimely demise. He torments himself with the question — if his father didn’t die because of him… the Peaceful family would have been financially comfortable, his mother would not have to work in the ruthless colonel’s house, and they would have always had a place to stay. The secret is too heavy for a five-year-old boy. But I also wonder if a five-year-old boy would feel guilt quite sharply as Tommo.
Their childhood is filled with warm, indelible memories. And both the brothers fall in love with Molly – their schoolmate and their neighbour. Will their love for the same girl cause a crevice between the brothers? Will their friendship be jeopardised by a feeling of inadequacy and jealousy? As Tommo wrestles with the questions, the brothers join the army.
Tommo narrates the story, carefully presenting all sides of Charlie, who many a time appears to be a hero. Charlie is taller and stronger than Tommo. He rescues a hound from her cruel human; he loses his job for saving the dog. He is everything that Tommo wants to be. When the brothers fight in the frontline, and when Tommo is paralysed by the sounds and sights of the war, Charlie is always there to prop him up. Always.
Why does everything go wrong in the brothers’s life? They are perennially mired in problems because of their love for their ‘special’ brother Big Joe is unconditional. Their love for animals is inspiring. (Of course, the characters love animals because the book is written by Michael Morpurgo, who is an ardent animal lover. I loved his War Horse and The Butterfly Lion.) Their love for their family can make them sacrifice everything they love. Even one’s own life.
The brothers often wonder why they are in the war, for they don’t know their enemy. In a striking scene, when a German is caught, Tommo looks at the prisoner and wonders that there is no difference between themselves and their enemies, except their uniform’s colour. The fighting becomes harder for the brothers as they don’t recognise the cause.
Michael Morpurgo, with his prose that is light yet poetic as ever, shows the darkness of the war, the mesmerising beauty of the English villages, and the burning love that is fanned by the Peaceful family.
After Sergeant Hanley and the field punishment, and the way Charlie managed to smile through it all, there isn’t a man in the company who doesn’t look up to him. Being his real brother I could feel I live in his shadow, but I never have and I do not now. I live in his glow.
The book’s postscript mentions that 290 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies, who fought in the First World War, were executed for desertion and cowardice, and two for simply sleeping at their posts. In November 2006, the injustice suffered by the soldiers were recognised, and a conditional pardon was granted.