Monday, July 13, 2015

75 Years Later: A Miracle of World War II Revisited

 Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk.

I did a quick catalog search for Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose before writing this entry and came away with the following results.

Of the seven libraries, three cataloged The Snow Goose as adult fiction, two cataloged the book as juvenile fiction, and two cataloged the title as both adult and juvenile fiction.

I'm sensing some ambiguity.

Rightly so.

The Snow Goose, its full title being The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk, first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940. In 1941, it was one of the O'Henry Prize winners.  The story has been included in numerous anthologies, including Three Legends by Paul Gallico which also include his stories "The Small Miracle" and "Ludmila",  and also as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Peter Scott, Beth Peck, Angela Barrett, and Anne Linton.

It is impossible for a modern reader to understand the full import of the story without first knowing of the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation of troops from Dunkirk known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

On September 1, 1939, Germany, under the leadership of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party, invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939,  Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Germany then successfully invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, then began its drive through France, advancing through the Ardennes and proceeding towards the English Channel.  Britain had sent its BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to aid the French in their defense, and now, by the 21st of May, 1940, the BEF, three French armies and what was left of the Belgium forces were trapped on the northern coast of France by the superior German forces.  The commander of the BEF decided that evacuation was the best option, and ordered all troops to Dunkirk, a seaport town on the Strait of Dover.

The situation was dire. Then, on the 22nd of May, a halt order was issued with Hitler's approval. The reasons behind this decision vary, but it was a godsend for the Allies. This delay allowed the Allied troops time to pull more men towards Dunkirk and construct defensive works against the Germans in anticipation of the ensuing Battle of Dunkirk.

From May 28 to May 31, the vastly outnumbered remaining troops of the French First Army fought a delaying tactic against seven German divisions, three armored, in the Siege of Lille.

Meanwhile, an assorted combine of some 800 boats, including merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats and even life boats carried out the task of evacuating over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches and coastal waters to a waiting flotilla of 39 British destroyers and other large ships.

The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and nearly all of their tanks and other equipment. The loss was devastating; the rescue miraculous.

The English needed al the miracles they could get. Less than a month later, on July 10, the Germans began a series of bombing raids on Great Britain, lasting over three and a half months, known as the Battle of Britain.

Gallico's The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk was published in the Saturday Evening Post mere months after the event.

Book #25: The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk (1992) by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Beth Peck. 45 pages.

The solitary inhabitant of an abandoned lighthouse situated in the great march along the Essex coast, twenty-seven year old Philip Rhayader spends his days painting scenes of birds and nature. A humpback with a twisted and deformed left arm, he has withdrawn from all human society except for his periodic trips into the little village of Chelmbury for supplies.

Far from being bitter about his physical burdens, Rhayader is filled with love for man, the animal kingdom, and all nature. He has chosen seclusion because he could not find anywhere a return for the warmth he felt inside, and could not stand the fact that others had to "make an effort" in order to get to know him.

From his home at the lighthouse, he would take his sixteen-footer sailboat and be gone for days at a time, looking for new birds to photograph and sketch. Some he added to his collection of tamed waterfowl, which formed the nucleus of sanctuary. He never shot a bird, and did not allow others to shoot them, and the birds repaid his kindness with their friendship. Some were pinioned, and remained at the lighthouse year-round, as a sign to the migrating wild birds that here at the lighthouse they would find food and sanctuary.

Rhayader painting incessantly, stockpiling a huge number of canvases, only a few of which he deigned to sell.  Those making their way to the marketplace were classified as masterpieces.

Three years later, when Rhayader was thirty, a young girl named Fritha, from the fisherfolk at Wickaeldroth, came to his door with a wounded snow goose. She was very scared, because she'd heard any number of fantastic tales of the ogre who lived in the lighthouse, but at the same time she knew instinctively that it was from this ogre she would find the help she needed.

Rhayader tends to the snow goose's wounds, she had been shot, and the goose begins to mend. Fritha is a frequent visitor, and Rhayader shows her a map of the world with Canada, the home of the snow goose. In June, the snow goose is well enough to migrate northward, and Fritha's visits come to an abrupt end.

Rhayader misses both of them, and experiences loneliness all over again. He paints a picture of the two of them, as they first appeared to him, a young, grime-covered child with a wounded snow goose in her arms.

Years pass, and every year except for one, the snow goose returns in the winter.  When the snow goose returns, Fritha's visits resume. Outside of the marsh, the world seethed and boiled, the beginning of an eruption that came close to marking its destruction, but the marsh was untouched.

In the spring of 1940, the birds migrated early from Rhayader's lighthouse, all except for the snow goose.  She's chosen Rhayader's lighthouse as her home - of her own free will.  Fritha, now a grown woman, remarks on this to Rhayader, and when she does, she realizes, from the look in Rhayader's eyes, that he loves her. Frightened by her knew knowledge, she stammers a good-bye and leaves.

Three weeks later she returns to the lighthouse, only to find Rhayader preparing his boat for a trip.  Excited, he tells her that he must go on a little trip but that he will come back. He explains the situation at Dunkirk - the men are trapped, his boat, along with many others, is needed to evacuate the men from the beaches to the safety of the destroyers.

While he is talking, Fritha realizes that he was no longer misshapen or grotesque, but beautiful.  She tells him that she will go with him, but he refuses her, saying her space on the boat is needed by the soldiers.  She reluctantly agrees, promises to watch over the birds while he is gone, then stands on the shore watching him sail away - not alone - the snow goose has joined him, it is the two of them that will journey forth, until both are beyond her vision.

The next part of the story is told in the voices of men who were rescued at Dunkirk, painting a vivid picture of their conditions.  Several of the men were discussing the boat with the snow goose, and the man who sailed it, rescuing an untold number of soldiers.

The last story they told was of the appearance of the snow goose before the captain of a Limehouse tug across he Straits of Dover, towing a string of Thames barges carrying soldiers. He's already heard of the legend o the snow goose, that a glimpse of the bird guaranteed a man's safe reduce, when he spotted it perched on a derelict small boat, a boat with a body in her.  It was Rhayader, dead from a machine gun.  When they got close enough, on of the deckhands attempted to reach the bird, but she hissed at him and struck him with her wings.  At that moment, another man hailed and pointed starboard.  A big German mine was floating in the water, and had the snow goose not attracted their attention and made them change their course, they would have sailed right into it, killing everyone.

The men blew up the mine with rifle fire, but when they turned their attention back to the bird, they saw the boat was gone, sunk by concussion, and Rhayader with it. As they watched, the snow goose rose into the sky, circled Rhayader's boat three times, and then flew west.

Back at the lighthouse, Fritha knows without being told that Rhayder will never return.  She wanders the lighthouse, and discovers the portrait Rhayader painted of her years ago, holding the snow goose.

There's a cry from the heavens outside, a high-pitched, well remembered note and Fritha hurries outside to see the snow goose in the sky. She knows that it is the soul of Rhayader, bidding her his love and farewell.  She answers in kind, then watches the snow goose fly away, the soul of Rhayder departing from her forever.

Back in the lighthouse, she takes the portrait and brings it back to her home for safekeeping. Every night, for weeks afterwards, she returns to feed the pinioned birds. One morning, the lighthouse is bombed by a German pilot on a dawn raid, blowing the lighthouse and everything in it into oblivion. By night, when Fritha arrives, the sea has covered all, and it the scene is one of utter desolation.

A children's story?


It is a beautiful story, a powerful story, and a sentimental story, but it is not a children's story.

It is also not a children's book. Paul Gallico said that he was at heart a storyteller, and that when he wrote, he wrote fairy tales. It is a good thing to remember that the original fairy tales were also not children's stories (read J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" here). The Snow Goose, in my opinion, qualifies as a fairy tale that borders on a parable. Parables are short, allegorical stories used to teach a moral or spiritual lesson. Rhayader and Firtha are never real people, and not because Gallico couldn't write real people, he could, and wonderfully so. Rhayader and Firtha are figures representing Innocence, Compassion, Love and Sacrifice, and they are effective in those roles, but when reading the story, you never get a feel for either one of them as individuals. The only people who come off as people are those giving their accounts of the events at Dunkirk near the end of the story, the Private Pottons, the Jocks, the Brill-Oudeners, and those accounts are adult accounts, intended for the ears of other adults.

Gallico started as a sportswriter in the 1920s, and wrote prolifically until his death in 1976.  It wasn't until the 1960s that he actually wrote books expressly for children, examples being The Day the Guinea Pig Talked (1963), The Day Jean-Pierre Went Around the World (1966), and Manxmouse (1968).

I'm not sure at what point The Snow Goose came to be regarded as a children's story. My guess would be about the time of the 1971 TV movie starring Jenny Agutter and Richard Harris. I've never seen it, but both Agutter and Harris are wonderful actors, Agutter won an Emmy for her portrayal of Firtha, and Gallico wrote the screenplay, so quality was obviously present in abundance.  Plus, his previous decade's output of children's books may have influenced the shift from adult novella to children's classic.

But a movie is not a book, and I can't envision any child reading, or having The Snow Goose read to them, with any great enthusiasm.  The language is adult (I don't mean profane, I mean adult) and slightly stylized, and religious symbolism overt, and the relationship between Rhayader and Firtha complex.

And sentimental, which works with the story. For those who would dismiss the sentimental at all costs, I offer Mr. Gallico's words on the subject: the contest between sentiment and slime, sentiment remains so far out in front, as it always has and always will among ordinary humans that the calamity-howlers and porn merchants have to increase the decibels of their lamentations, the hideousness of their violence and the mountainous piles of their filth to keep in the race at all.

On a final note, The Snow Goose was the most popular of all of Gallico's books, and one of its biggest fans?

Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was one of Gallico's heroes.  One night at the Stork Club, Gallico sat at the bar and found that Hemingway was sitting right next to him.  They introduced themselves and Hemingway said, "You know Gallico, Snow Goose - I wish I'd written that."

Okay, then.

All the above none withstanding,  I love the story of The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk.  Just not for children.

The Snow Goose: a story of Dunkirk at Amazon.

Paul Gallico (1897 - 1976) was born in New York City and died in Monaco. He came from a musical family, but knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer.  He wrote his first short story when he was ten years old, on a visit to Brussels with his parent to attend the World's Fair.  He attended Columbia University as a pre-med student, then enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1918.  In 1921, he graduated from Columbia University and got a job as a review secretary with the National Board of Motion Picture Review.

In 1922 he joined the staff of the New York Dailey News, writing a sports column and eventually becoming the sports editor.  He created the Golden Gloves competition for amateur boxers, and got into promoting sporting events. In 1936, he gave up sports writing to be a freelance fiction writer.

Over the next forty years, Gallico wrote 41 novels, a large number of short stories, twenty theatrical movies, twelve television films,  and a television series. In 1950, he moved to Europe, and never again had a permanent residence in the United States, but he always considered himself first and foremost an American citizen.

Some of Gallico's other works include Love of Seven Dolls (1954), the basis of the film Lili (1953), Lou Gerhig: Pride of the Yankees (1942), the base for the 1942 film "The Pride of the Yankees",  Thomasina: The Cat Who Thought She Was God (1957), the base of a Disney film "The Three Lives of Thomasina" (1963), The Silent Miouw: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats (1964), The Abandoned (in USA) or Jennie (in UK) (1950), The Hand of Mary Constable (1964), and The Poseidon Adventure (1969).

Recommendation #1: Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958) by Paul Gallico, illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi. 157 pages.

Forget its sequels and forget the horrible movie with the same title starring Angela Lansbury. Just read this book.

This is a book marketed and cataloged as adult fiction, but perfectly readable by any middle-schooler and up.

All charlady Ada Harris wants is a genuine Dior dress, and after three years of scrimping, saving, and a bit good fortune via the football pool, her dream is finally in her reach.  But, it takes the help of many a good French citizen to fulfill Mrs. Harris's heart's desire, and Mrs. Harris returns their help in spades.

All the characters in the book are fully fleshed out and recognizable, the story is wonderful, the dialogue priceless, the glimpse into 1950s Paris and the House of Dior entirely entertaining, and yes, you will experience the occasional throat-tightening and tear-to-the-eye when reading certain passages.

It's a fairy tale. It has a happy ending. I love it.

So will you.

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris at Amazon.

The Literature of Paul Gallico website.  Great resource for information on his books by Martin Benson.

The Miracle at Dunkirk at Eyewitness to website.


  1. I read this when I was a child of ten or eleven, and re-read it lots (crying afresh everytime). I think there are some children for whom parable and love and sadness work well together, and so I wouldn't be so quick to say this is not one for children to read....although I do think I enjoyed more as I grew older, with the book reaching it's peak in my mind when I was 14 or so....

  2. what a great movie