The author’s uncanny grasp of Tom Maggs’s presence gives special resonance to the exploration of his life in a Suffolk village throughout The Great War. The only surviving son of William and Mary Maggs, Tom watches for lost ships out of his bedroom window on the second floor of the weathered Inn, The Blue Anchor. Tom draws the boats that are moored by the river and sits in the Sailor’s Reading Room, where he can marvel at the models. He imagines all the famous wrecks that have occurred in this part of the North Sea.
Although he’s only twelve years old and is considered by the village to be a cripple and suited to “another kind of work,” Tom is able to help his mother and Ann, his sister, with chores at the inn while also working with local ropemaker George Allard. Meanwhile, Tom’s teacher, Mr. Runnicles, enthralls the boy with tales of the sea. He warns Tom that if there’s a “war we’ll have to stay here on the coast and defend it from the enemy... Keep your eyes on the horizon and your ear to the ground.”
So begins the adolescent life of this artistic, sensitive boy whose father drowns in pint after pint of beer, blinded by his memories of the Boer War, while Mary and Ann must try to find a way to cope with the years. Neither Tom nor his parents will leave their insular village near the cold and indifferent fens. Tied to the ocean as is the rest of his family, the young boy seizes upon the Scottish artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who has come to Suffolk to live with his red-haired artist wife, Margaret MacDonald.
Tom is hopelessly attracted to the older man with his great black cape, his hat of felted wool and his bad foot. “Mac looks like Sherlock Holmes, a strange and mercurial man who lifts his pair of binoculars, his eyes straining to see all the way to Holland and onto Germany to see if what they say about the war is true. Meeting at his cottage, Tom longs to learn from him and from his wife. Propelled into his future, Tom hears about Mac’s career and how he made the Glasgow School of Art even when the life that he’d been born for is “now the life he has here.” Whether Mac and his wife are working at pictures of flowers and babies or writing letters to friends in foreign countries, neither is blind to the secret coves and currents of the coast.
Freud skillfully transports us into Tom's inner world. Like Mac’s gorgeous rendering of larkspur, the crushed blue of canvas, and the borage of two lazing blue flowers, “the rock cress,” the paintings allow Tom to see his surroundings with a new sense of purpose: the glittering sky and the marsh with its pebbled tower; the graveyard where the nesting starlings
symbolize Tom’s long-lost siblings, and the singing of the herring girls as they pack the barrels--and the thunderous zeppelins that fly directly overhead, filling the sky like a “second moon” as they follow the railway line inland.
The novel is simple, poignant, and unique, and the prose flows fluidly, making it impossible not to fall completely into the story even when the novel sometimes lacks real narrative thrust. As Tom strains his ears for the high whine of the bombs about to fall, he learns how “Old Mac’s” business went down in Glasgow, that he fell ill and it was his wife who buoyed him up with money of her own. Tom’s friendship with this artist and his wife provide Tom solace as he reads the Defense of the Realm Act of 1914: there will be no discussing of military business, or spreading gossip about the war. Then there is Ann, who clings to a thread of hope for
her lover’s survival after his ship is torpedoed by the Germans. Ann also feels the isolation of being alone, even when she falls for another soldier, their affair secret to everyone except Tom. Mary Maggs too has secrets of her own, and the days she spends with her abusive, drunken husband are filled with heartache.
As Freud focuses on the interconnected fabric of life, especially how we connect to the natural world, Tom’s memories become a series of tableaus disconnected from the present while distant guns of war chime like thunder. From the wounded faces of the soldier-victims whose realities Tom must someday face, Freud writes a sensitive, heartbreaking tale of one boy’s coming of age and how external forces shape his future
as they also face the world in which he lives.