The Snow Goose
Published: May 16, 2017
I have been urging everyone to see “Their Finest” not only because it’s terrific but because it’s the only good movie in the theaters. The first time I saw it, I just wallowed in the wit, the romance and, of course, Bill Nighy. The second time I saw it, I connected more strongly with the movie-within-the-movie: the evacuation of Dunkirk.
And, finally, I was reminded of a book from my childhood, one of the biggest tearjerkers ever written.
In the spring of 1940, nothing could stop Hitler’s march across Europe — by late May, Paris was on the verge of falling to the Nazis. And the English troops who had fought alongside the French were trapped at the harbour town of Dunkirk. For nine days, they waited on a seven-mile stretch of beach. And then began an astounding evacuation — English pleasure boats, manned mostly by amateur crews, rushed across the Channel to bring the boys home.
Five days later, these boats had rescued 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops. Casualties: a handful. Effect on English morale: incalculable.
A few months later, Paul Gallico published "The Snow Goose" as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post; in 1941, Alfred Knopf published it as one of the shortest books ever. It became an instant classic. My mother gave it to me when I was a tot. I cherish the day I read it. I still have that copy. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
“The Snow Goose" is about surface reality — and what lies beneath. Philip Rhayader is a 27-year-old hunchback. His left arm is crippled. And he is an artist, with all the sensitivity that implies. So he moves to an abandoned English lighthouse that overlooks a marshland. Lonely? You bet. But there are consolations — the rugged beauty of the landscape and the yearly migration of the birds.
A story needs people. And here comes Frith, a 12-year-old girl. She carries a goose, wounded by a hunter. Rhayader explains that it’s a Canadian snow goose that has been pushed to Europe by strong winds. He’s gifted with animals — he helps the bird heal. [To read this excerpt, scroll down.]
When the goose flies off in the spring, Frith’s visits end. But the goose returns that fall. So does Frith. Thus begins an annual cycle, with alternating seasons of friendship and loneliness. But as surely as change is the law of life, so does this cycle change. For Rhayader, affection for Frith has turned into love. For the goose, the long flights away from the marsh end. The unspoken question: Will Rhayader declare his love? Will Frith, like the goose, stay?
“The Snow Goose” is a parable we all hope is true. Friendship is healing. Beauty isn’t just skin-deep. Intimacy can morph into love. And love is stronger than death.
The war comes. Across the channel are men in need. And here, on the English shore, is Rhayader. “For once — for once I can be a man and play my part," he says, and he sails off to rescue his countrymen.
And then? But let’s stop here, before the hyper-dramatic conclusion. Get the book, all 5,000 words and 64 pages of it. Oh, and get a box of Kleenex.
One November afternoon, three years after Rhayander had come to the Great Marsh, a child approached the lighthouse studio by means of the sea wall. In her arms she carried a burden.
She was no more than twelve, slender, dirty, nervous and timid as a bird, but beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery. She was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair, with a head to which her body was yet to grow, and deep-set, violet-coloured eyes.
She was desperately frightened of the ugly man she had come to see, for legend had already begun to gather about Rhayader, and the native wild-fowlers hated him for interfering with their sport.
But greater than her fear was the need of that which she bore. For locked in her child’s heart was the knowledge, picked up somewhere in the swampland, that this ogre who lived in the lighthouse had magic that could heal injured things.
She had never seen Rhayader before and was close to fleeing in panic at the dark apparition that appeared at the studio door, drawn by her footsteps — the black head and beard, the sinister hump, and the crooked claw. She stood there staring, poised like a disturbed marsh bird for instant flight.
But his voice was deep and kind when he spoke to her
“What is it child?”
She stood her ground, and then edged timidly forward. The thing she carried in her arms was a large white bird, and it was quite still. There were stains of blood on its whiteness and on her kirtle where she had held it to her.
The girl placed it in his arms. ‘I found it, sir. It’s hurted. Is it still alive?’
“Yes. Yes, I think so. Come in, child, come in.’
Rhyander went inside, bearing the bird, which he placed upon a table, where it moved feebly. Curiosity overcame fear. The girl followed and found herself in a room warmed by a coal fire, shining with many coloured pictures that covered the walls, and full of a strange but pleasant smell.
The bird fluttered. With his good hand Rhayader spread on of its immense white pinions. The end was beautifully tipped with black.
Rhayader looked and marvelled, and said: ‘Child: where did you find it?’
‘In t’ marsh, sir, where fowlers had been. What — what is it, sir?’
‘It’s a snow goose from Canada. But how in all heaven came it here?’
The name seemed to mean nothing to the little girl. Her deep violet eyes, shining out of the dirt on her thin face, were fixed with concern on the injured bird.
She said: ‘Can ‘ee heal it, sir?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Rhayader. ‘We will try. Come, you shall help me.’
There were scissors and bandages and splints on a shelf, and he was marvelously deft, even with the rooked claw that managed to hold things.
He said: ‘Ah, she has been shot, poor thing. Her leg is broken, and the wing tip! but not badly. See, we will clip her primaries, so that we can bandage it, but in the spring the feathers will grow and she will be able to fly again. We’ll bandage it close to her body, so that she cannot move it until it has set, and then make a splint for the poor leg.’
Her fears forgotten, the child watched, fascinated, as he worked, and all the more so because while he fixed a fine splint to the shattered leg he told her the most wonderful story.