Despite the title, the Snow Goose is not about winter. It always gives me the feel of winter, though, as it is set mainly in and around a disused lighthouse on the Essex marshes, a desolate place full of creeks and strangely filling and emptying muddy creeks, wild with frosts and wind and goose-honking. It’s about a disfigured and disabled man living a solitary artistic existence, painting birds and marshes, and keeping the wild geese safe from hunters, who finds friendship of a sort with a local waif. She brings in a strange wild goose, injured by the hunters. It is a Snow Goose. The man tends its wing and leg, and the bird recovers, only to return to the lighthouse year after year, where it has found safe haven.
Then the war strikes, and the man hears the calls for small boats to be brought over the North Sea to Dunkirk, for the evacuation of the troops stranded there. The man, in his sailing boat, escorted by a goose that flies around and gives the troops hope, becomes a legend.
It is a beautiful story, written only a year or so after Dunkirk, an incident of legend that younger readers may recognise from the film Atonement. It epitomises the sort of English spirit that makes ordinary men (and women, although few) who have boats of all sorts set out on a perilous sea voyage to save ‘our boys’. It is written in a form of flashback – the tension between the man and the girl overcome by the care for the Snow Goose that switches from narrative to witness reports of the goose and the sailboat by survivors.
I have no idea where my copy came from, probably an aunt or a cousin, since the book is older than me, but I carefully covered the dust jacket with cellophane when it came to me, which suggests I got it in the 1960s. I read it many times in my early teens, swept up by the description of the marshes and love of wild spaces long before I actually became familiar with them. I don’t think I’ve read it since. What I found on this re-reading was a strangely poetic narrative, richly illustrated with both etchings and colour plates by that guru for wildlife supporters, Sir Peter Scott. It is extremely moving, and captures the essence of the marshes and the tragedy of Dunkirk in a palette of rich but sparse words.
It is short, but haunting. It is very British. It might be a difficult read for MG readers, but by early teens, I hope most would try it. It is worth the exploration.
First published 1941 My edition (c) 1946 with illustrations by (Sir) Peter Scott
Read as part of the Children’s Classic Pre 1960 Reading Challenge, and the Kid Lit Blog Hop.