Illustrated by Angela Barrett
(Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 978-0375-84978-7)
Recently, the BBC held a poll on the Open Book radio show, asking people to vote for the novel that they felt was most deserving of being rediscovered. After much talk and lobbying from several authors, a clear winner emerged, the novella The Snow Goose, that was written in 1940 and first published in the Saturday Evening Post. Since it was not a book I had ever read, of course, I had to get my hands on a copy at once and I am very glad that I did.
“At low water the blackened and ruptured stones of the ruins of an abandoned lighthouse show above the surface, with here and there, like buoy markers, the top of a sagging fence-post. Once this lighthouse abutted on the sea and was a beacon on the Essex coast. Time shifted land and water, and its usefulness came to an end.It is the coast of Essex, England in the late 1930's and a young man, Philip Rhayader, a hunchback with a crippled hand, has bought an abandoned lighthouse, and moved into it to pursue his work as an artist, a painter. He keeps to himself, rarely venturing into town, and when he is not working, uses his time to sail his small boat along the coast, searching for birds that have been wounded by hunters. He takes the birds back to the lighthouse, patches them up and nurses them back to health, releasing them back to the wild when they are strong enough.
Lately it served again as a human habitation. In it there lived a lonely man. His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things. He was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty. It is about him, and a child who came to know him and see beyond the grotesque form that housed him to what lay within, that this story is told.”
“In his retreat he had his birds, his painting, and his boat. He owned a sixteen-footer, which he sailed with wonderful skill...One day, a young girl named Fritha brings an injured bird to him, knowing of his skill.
“Physical deformity often breeds hatred of humanity in men.
Rhayader did not hate; he loved very greatly, man, the animal kingdom, and all nature. His heart was filled with pity and understanding. He had mastered his handicap, but he could not master the rebuffs he suffered, due to his appearance.”
“She was no more than twelve, slender, dirty, nervous and timid as a bird, but beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faerie. She was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair, with a head to which her body was yet to grow, and deep-set, violet-colored eyes.”The bird is a snow goose, a bird that Paul thinks most likely was caught up in a huge storm while heading south for the winter in his North America home, first blown off course and then shot as well.
“The bird was a young one, no more than a year old. She was born in a northern land far, far across the seas, a land belonging to England. Flying to the south to escape the snow and ice and bitter cold, a great storm had seized her and whirled and buffeted her about. It was a truly terrible storm, stronger than her great wings, stronger than anything.”
He takes the bird in, nurses it and finally releases it back to the wild. But he finds that every year the bird returns to the marsh and his lighthouse, as does Fritha to visit the bird. But as their friendship develops, across the water, a terrible storm of another sort is brewing.
It is 1940 and thousands of British and French soldiers are caught on the coast of France at Dunkirk and will surly perish. The troop carriers can not get close enough to the shallow coast to rescue them and the Germans are killing them by air and land. A call goes out for any sort of small boats, tugs, fishing boats, pleasure craft, to head across the channel and assist, and Paul and his small sailboat are one of many that heed the call.
While it is an historic fact that those small boast saved more than 300,000 soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation, the role that Paul plays and what become of him and the snow goose, and what becomes of Fritha, I will allow you to discover for yourself.
A tissue or two may be needed.
In addition to the beautiful writing of the author Gallico, the particular edition that I read is also greatly enhanced by the beautiful illustrations of Angela Barrett. I can't say that I love the one used on the cover, but the others, especially those of the Great March, are lovely. So I would not only recommend this book but this particular edition as well.
For some reason, this book is often referred to as a children's book but for the life of me I don't really know why. I don't think that either the story or the style of writing is suited to children or at least not those younger than mature teenagers. But a children's book or not, it certainly is a haunting, beautiful story, a story of friendship and love and healing and redemption that adults will certainly enjoy.