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This is a book I have meant to read for absolutely ages. Training to be a teacher (and working in a bookshop) means you come across these great books which are not just exciting stories but great teaching resources too. I was recently reminded of Paul Gallico's writing during the Jubilee as one of his earlier titles was re-printed in celebration, 'Coronation'. It encouraged me to dig out my copy of 'The Snow Goose' and finally read it. I am going to sound incredibly lazy when I tell you that it is only about 45 pages but I am constantly reading something and it is easy sometimes to bypass the shorter stories.
'The Snow Goose' is a story about friendship against all odds, both human and animal. It also involves a fictionalised account of the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War. I really enjoy reading war literature, and particularly children's fiction as I hope they are something I can integrate into History teaching once I qualify. It is great to have a list of titles you know you can refer back to that really create the image and atmosphere of an historical event as it makes it far more accessible to children.
'The Snow Goose' was written in 1940 by American author Paul Gallico and was first published as a short story in a newspaper. Due to wide success the following year it was published as a novella and continued to capture the hearts and imaginations of readers young and old. In 1971 it was made into a BBC TV film (which is available on you tube) and continued to prove both an enduring and much-loved story.
The main character in the story is physically impaired recluse Philip Rhayader. Having tried for many years to integrate himself into society and found only opposition and alienation he chooses to isolate himself in the rural marshlands of wartime Essex. He leads his solitary existence in an abandoned lighthouse, taking solace in his two greatest passions: painting and nature. His habitation in the marshlands takes on an almost mythical power within the surrounding area, many adults and children fear his deformed appearance and strange solitude. As a result Rhayader has little human contact during these years, that is until a young girl called Fritha comes knocking at his door. Rhayader is known in the local area for caring for injured and hunted animals, so when Fritha discovers an injured goose she swallows her fear and takes the Goose to Rhayaders lighthouse. She is shocked by his deformed hand and hunched back but places the health of the injured goose above all else. She begs Rhayader to help the goose and together they rear the animal back to good health. The goose is of course no ordinary bird, but in fact a very rare Canadian snow goose which had lost its way during migration for Winter. Once the bird is fit to fly again the pair assume they will never see it, or each other, again. For Rhayader this is an immensely sad time as the interaction with Fritha has bought much joy into his life. However, the bird returns each year during migration and each year brings Fritha's company back to Rhayader's lighthouse.
As the pair grow older and their friendship strengthens they begin to relish the return of the goose each year. During a visit one night Fritha discovers Rhayader's lighthouse empty and goes in search of him, finding him on his boat ready to set sail. Rhayader has heard of the British retreat from Dunkirk and plans to sail his small sailboat across the channel in order to save as many men as he can from the ruined beaches. Fritha begs him to let her join him but he explains that her position in the boat could jeopardise the lives of many men who he might be able to save from certain death. Fritha waves off Rhayader tearfully and with a strange ominous feeling in the pit of her stomach. As the sailboat is removed from her view she sees the swift white shape of the snow goose hot on Rhayder's trail, determined to fly with his firm friend for as long as it takes. The book then shifts to eyewitness accounts from soldiers of the image of this great white bird flying over the beaches and bringing forth their saviour in a tiny little sailboat. They view the bird as an 'angel of mercy' and many men, for many years, repeat the story as both significant and symbolic. I won't spoil the ending for you but needless to say this heartfelt and poignant story truly reflects the futility and destructive nature of man-made war.
Gallico's writing is an absolute joy. Not only is this a great story but it is also great story-telling. I particularly enjoyed the use of colloquial language in order to capture the regional accents true to the areas depicted. There is a real sense of atmosphere in this book and a strong feeling of reverence for the beauty of nature and all its inhabitants. The imagery in the book is hugely powerful and serves as a deep and meaningful parable on the devastating and tragic effect of war on the individuals directly involved and those who voluntarily took action. This is a book that both children and adults alike can enjoy. For adults it is a very quick read which is both enjoyable and thought provoking. For children this is a fantastic historical reference for a hugely significant event of the Second World War. Frankly, whether they are studying it or not I would read it to or with them because it raises many questions about friendship, loyalty, love and war.
I think it is obvious from my review how I feel about this classic short story. It moved me, it encouraged me to think deeply about man's relationship with one another and with nature. More than anything though it helped illuminate the events of Dunkirk in an entirely new and affecting manner, and not simply as cold historical events determined by facts and statistics.
I bought this book from Waterstones where it retails at £7.99. It seems obvious to say that you can buy this book cheaper online, I'm assuming you are all savvy consumers. However, I would urge you to consider the importance of your local high street book store and make choices about where you purchase your books. I am a strong believer in the physical power of books and for me that is entirely lost by ordering online. This is probably a train of thought best saved for another time as I am in danger of talking for hours on this subject. The book does also include another of Gallico's short stories, 'The Small Miracle', which as far as I am concerned is both great value for money and a chance to sample more of this great writers work. The other story is just as enjoyable and, like 'The Snow Goose', holds layers of meaning which are waiting to be peeled back by the reader.
Read it and fall in love with it like I have.