As promised in my last post, I am making my way (very slowly) through the nominations for “neglected classic” made by ten contemporary authors for the radio 4 program Open Book. This past two weeks I read The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico, and Samuel Johnson’s This History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. I will only have room here to address The Snow Goose—it’s just that kind of book, and not in a good way.
Paul Gallico seems to be best known for penning The Poseidon Adventure, and is thus ultimately responsible for the excesses of the 1970s adventure movie featuring Gene Hackman et al upside down somewhere in the Atlantic. The Snow Goose, published in 1941, was his first novel, and apparently his most successful. It’s barely a novel, really, being more of a novella or a short story at only 58 small and rather sparsely lined pages. I should also mention that it’s a book for children (or I really hope that’s what he was going for).
Unlike truly great children’s literature, this book doesn’t address and satisfy multiple audiences, however. It’s that time-old story of hunchback meets girl, girl grows up, hunchback falls in love with girl, girl at first finds hunchback creepy but then too late realizes that she is in love with him. Oh, and there is a goose involved. In fact, the goose brings them together, as geese so often do (really, who needs Match.com when you have a goose?).
Clearly The Snow Goose was a product of its time, and is moderately interesting for that. Rhayader, the hunchback, dies at Dunkirk after rescuing hundreds of troops in his little sailboat, a testament to the many private vessels that assisted in the evacuation.
In most other ways, though, the characters of The Snow Goose occupy the timeless realm of fairy tale and the netherland of racial stereotype. In this latter element, The Snow Goose finds me a particularly unsympathetic reader, since it demonstrates the ways in which a little knowledge of Old English can do a whole lot of damage. Frith, whose name means peace and thus rather crudely ties to the whole war thingy, first approaches the hunchback with a wounded snow goose that she has found in the marshes. Frith is, “beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery. She was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair” (15). She lives in the “ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth,” a place that seems to have survived untouched since Anglo-Saxon times; she speaks in an annoyingly in-your-face regional accent full of ays, ‘ees, and idiosyncratic verb usage. “’She be’ent going’,” she says, of the snow goose, and, littering the Essex landscape with her dropped consonants (and vowels, for that matter), “’The Princess be goin’ t’ stay’.” Even more vexing is that Frith intuitively knows things, such as the fact that Rhayader is doomed when he sails off in his little boat to Dunkirk (duh!), “from the ancient powers of the blood that was in her” (54). Need I quote more?
In addition to all this yukky Germanicism, The Snow Goose is prone to flights of sentimentalism as soaring as the course of the snow goose itself. Witness this passage from the conclusion of the book, when the goose returns from Dunkirk, where it had faithfully followed the hunchback:
Wild spirit called to wild spirit, and she seemed to be flying with the great bird, soaring with it in the evening sky, and hearkening to Rhayader’s message.
Sky and earth were trembling with it and filled her beyond the bearing of it. “Frith! Fritha! Frith, my love. Good-by, my love.” The white pinions, black-tipped, were beating it out upon her heart, and her heart was answering: “Philip, I love ‘ee.”
My recommendation to ‘ee be’ent t’ read this book.