By Maureen Tai, 30 November 2018
“A lot would never have happened if I’d handed over a lemon sherbet that day.” – Michael.
When a place and a time are suffused with equal measures of gladness and sorrow, should one, when the opportunity arises, revisit it? Or leave the past well alone, buried in the hazy mists of memories? In Homecoming, a middle-aged man struggles with this decision, only to be drawn back into his boyhood days from fifty years ago, to the village where he and his mother used to live, and where, by the edge of a wild and glorious marsh, he made an unlikely friend in Mrs. Pettigrew. As he reminisces, he wistfully recounts the unusual but ultimately tragic story of lives irrevocably altered by that fearsome weapon of humankind known as Progress.
Michael’s story begins with him sobbing pitifully after being pushed by the village bully into a brambly hedge. All for a bagful of lemon sherbets. A gigantic thorn has lodged itself painfully in his cheek. Thankfully, Mrs. Pettigrew chances upon the injured boy and invites him back to her home so that she can fix him up. Despite her very English -sounding name, Mrs. Pettigrew is a foreigner (her Thai heritage is hinted at in the book) who was once married to an English botanist and who now inhabits a Pullman railway carriage at the edge of a marsh. Michael is a schoolboy who lives in the village with his mother, sings in the church choir and rides his bicycle everywhere. Before this meeting, both knew of the other but were not friends, or even acquaintances. As Mrs. Pettigrew tends to Michael’s wound, she tells him her life story and introduces her pets to him, a donkey called Donkey and three greyhounds called, Fast, Faster and Fastest. The seeds of understanding sown, Michael is mended and his life is from then on is profoundly enriched by his friendship with this gentle and kind old soul. Michael’s thankful mother also becomes best friends with Mrs. Pettigrew and the three share many blissful moments together, celebrating their deep appreciation for the enchantments offered by the surrounding natural world.
But those halcyon days are cut short by an ambitious plan concocted by men in suits to build an enormous atomic power station right in the middle of the marsh, next to the sea, on the land on which Mrs. Pettigrew’s railway carriage nestles. They mean to take away and destroy not only her home, but the home of wild birds and insects, small mammals and plants. Michael, his mother and Mrs. Pettigrew are defiant and vocal in their opposition to this ill-advised project, and remain so until the powerful fist of Progress falls heavily, with a merciless finality.
Michael Morpurgo is one of UK’s most celebrated children’s writers, his most well-known works being War Horse and Kensuke’s Kingdom. Homecoming, which is a short 70+ page read, is very much classic Morpurgo: some might say old-fashioned, others might say literary, but almost all will unanimously say beautiful and masterful story-telling for children. The author is not one to shy away from difficult truths, or to shield children from the sad realities of life. As such, there is no happy ending for the boy Michael, his mother or for Mrs. Pettigrew because so much of what we humans do in the name of Progress has devastating consequences from which there is no recovery. We continue even to this day, this hour, this minute, to wreck irredeemable havoc on this wondrous, bounteous earth that we are blessed enough to live on. We continue to make our past sometimes too painful to revisit. But visit it we must, and visit it we do, so that we do not forget.
For ages 8 and up.