After finishing The Chronicles of Prydain, I naturally had to find another book to read out loud to my siblings; so I decided we would try Tom Playfair, by Fr. Francis J. Finn, S.J. Now, I had read and loved the Tom Playfair series a few years ago, and I longed to share this beautiful and truly edifying story with my siblings - but I was a little doubtful whether my youngest listeners, a 10-year-old brother and an 8-year-old sister, would be able to appreciate a book told in such an old-fashioned style.
Much to my delight, my little brother was roaring with laughter by the end of the first chapter.
This book review isn't going to be a book review, really. It's gonna be more of a book recommendation. Because I feel incredibly sorry for anyone who has not read this book, and if you are among that unfortunate number, and you do not go and pick it up immediately after reading this post, then I - shall simply whither away and die.
Actually. I understand if you won't go pick it up immediately. Because this is one of those books, alas! which is extremely hard to get one's hands on. I do believe it's out of print except for in Catholic publishing companies. Oh well. C'est la vie. I'll at least make you want to read the book.
What was it about?
This is the story of an unruly little boy named (you guessed it) Tom Playfair. At ten years old, he should be about to make his First Communion; but Tom's father has his doubts about whether Tom is ready for this "day of days." Tom isn't a bad boy, but he's not exactly a role model, either. He picks locks and steals apples, engages in wild battles of wit with his young uncle, and runs off to watch fires - much to the dismay of his tenderhearted aunt, who, try as she might, cannot replace Tom's dead mother. Mr. Playfair is very concerned with the behavior of his young son. If he goes on as wildly as all this, how will he ever be ready to make his First Communion?
So, Tom's father takes action. He sends Tom off to a Catholic boarding school in
Kansas, in hopes that the good example of teachers and classmates there will iron out the many wrinkles in Tom's character.
At St. Maure's, Tom meets a mixed lot of companions - some cruel, some pious, and all of them as fun-loving as he is. His adventures at St. Maure's are by turns hilarious, exciting, and deeply moving.
What were the characters like?
Tom himself was a delightful little fellow. He had so many good qualities in the beginning, such spirit and kindness and wit, and he developed these qualities beautifully as the book went on. His sense of humor is droll, and his boyishness is totally believable.
Tom's friends, too, were a lovable set. Harry Quip (isn't that a great name? Quip?), Tom's closest friend, was perhaps not very deep a character but very good and jolly and fine company; I liked him immensely. And then...hmm, the other boys, let's see. There was sweet, hardworking little Arthur, the newspaper boy, for a few chapters - and saintly little Alex Jones, oh! who loved Jesus so much - and John Green, the bully, at whose expense much laughter was spent - and Jimmy Aldine, who was so, so good and holy and sacrificial! This is another book (like Lay Siege to Heaven) that makes me yearn for holiness because the characters are just so delightfully good.
Was there anything not-so-great about it?
I'm convinced this book is as close to perfect as a book can get. There were a few times characters used the name of God in an exclamation; but I assume this was meant as a prayer, as both times it was a very good Tom who used it, and I highly doubt Fr. Finn would give a bad example in a book which had a major theme of good examples.
Although the ending was satisfying, the conclusion was not very final. That's because there are two more books in the series which anyone will naturally have to read after finishing this one.
If you just don't like this kind of book, where the plot revolves around the development of one character and the style is old-fashioned and omniscient, then you are permitted not to like it. I'll forgive you and even try to understand you. But still. Every Catholic - no, every Christian - no, every person alive should read this.
Oh, and a word about the cover. Do disregard the cover at the top of this book review, please. It's a very boring cover for such a splendid book. This old cover I found online gives a much better idea of how exciting it can get...
What gems of beauty/wisdom were hidden in its depths?
'Tis impossible to really go into that here. I'd be typing up quotes from the whole book. But I guess I can scratch the surface....
- Holiness is portrayed in a perfectly beautiful way. No stiff, boring cut-outs of saints in this book! The boys are all living and breathing and real, and it's clearly shown that someone who loves God with all his heart can be just as fun-loving and tough as anyone else. Indeed, the more pious someone is, the better playmate he is.
- It was so Catholic! (And by that I do NOT mean that non-Catholics can't enjoy it. I'm sure my Protestant brothers and sisters would enjoy it, too!) The love and respect shown for the Blessed Sacrament is so beautiful. I loved that back then Holy Communion was seen as something so sacred a boy had to prepare long and hard before he was ready.
- The theme of the importance of good companionship was spectacular.
- And the prose was lovely!
A few favorite quotes:
"Mr. Aldine, be it observed, never opened the letters from his boy but with his wife beside him. It was a delicate attention, and a very small thing, it may be, but take the small things out of life, and we have little left but murders and bank robberies."
"But Tom whipped off his garment before James had fairly entered his protest, and with his grandest air of authority made his friend put it on. Then, clad in his sailor jacket and knickerbockers, the sturdy young Samaritan trotted on as comfortable in his light attire as though he were in the heats of mid-summer. Genuine kindness is warmer than any coat."
Have you not read this book? You poor, poor soul. Go order it or borrow it or read it online right now. Here is a link to an audiobook. Here's a link to where you can read it (or at least get a feel for it) online.
Have you read this book? Do share the loveliness of it in the comments and squeal about it with me.