Musty Books: “The Snow Goose” by Paul Gallico (1941)

The redemptive power of attachment – to both people and places – is at the heart of The Snow Goose, a touching novella by American writer Paul Gallico. Abandoning his pre-war career as a sports journalist for the New York Daily News, Gallico moved to the small Devon town of Salcombe and surrounded himself with a menagerie of cats and dogs, enthusiastically embarking on a new career as a writer of short stories. And the bleak, rugged splendour of the British coastline seeps into The Snow Goose, a book that received a sniffy response from some contemporary critics  (“One must have a heart of stone not to read The Snow Goose without laughing” – Julian Symons) but became a firm favourite with a wartime British public who were understandably not averse to a dose of warm-hearted sentimentality.

The Snow Goose Cover

The story is short and simple. Philip Rhayader is a disabled young artist leading a solitary existence in a disused lighthouse on the Essex marshlands. He is treated with suspicion by the villagers of nearby Chelmbury, where a mis-shapen hand, curvature of the spine and a bushy black beard are apparently valid enough reasons for widespread ostracisation. But he finds refuge in the company of the birds and other wildlife that he paints, and – ultimately – in a delicate friendship with Frith, an orphaned 12-year-old girl from the oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth. In 1933, Frith tentatively arrives at the lighthouse desperately seeking help for a “hurted” bird that has been shot by trigger-happy local fowlers. When the gentle Rhyader builds tiny splints for the bird’s wounded leg and and identifies it as a rare Canadian snow goose, an unlikely relationship of mutual belonging is cultivated between man, girl and animal.

The symbolic relationship between Frith and the snow goose could barely be made more clear: the bird is even ultimately named after her, and her visits to the lighthouse are initially only prompted by its presence. When the recovered snow goose departs from Rhayader’s makeshift sanctuary after seven months of recuperation, Frith’s visits cease too, and the artist learns “all over again the true meaning of the word ‘loneliness'”. Four months later, however, the snow goose miraculously returns… as does Frith, after Rhayader leaves a note for her with the local postmistress. This recurring cycle of companionship and painful solitude continues as the years progress, and the the bird continues to migrate and return, until Rhayader and Frith experience a startling revelation that alarms them both in equal measure.

The Snow Goose Illustration

The relationship is eyebrow-raising by 21st century standards, an era when an unsupervised friendship between a twentysomething man and a girl in her early teens would rightly arouse suspicions. But the truth of the relationship throughout Frith’s adolescent years is one of genuinely innocent companionship, and Rhayader’s deeper feelings only emerge as she approaches her twenties. And it’s a terrifying revelation for both parties: in perhaps the book’s most upsetting scene (which is some achievement, given the sadness to follow), the adult Frith sees “the longing and loneliness, and the deep, welling, unspoken things” in Rhayader’s eyes, and – momentarily stunned by his dependence on her – turns on her heel, leaving him in the company of the now permanently-resident snow goose. The bird has found its home, but Frith has not – a decision that she instantly regrets. It is a moment of haunting, silent shock.

For the looming presence of war, a darkening shadow throughout the duration of the story, ultimately tears them apart. Rhayader takes his tiny boat across the channel to assist with the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, an act of selfless bravery that costs him his life. And, as he dies, he is accompanied by the snow goose, circling above. The bird – and, by extension, Frith – is with him. And a touching suggesting that Rhayader’s spirit enters the bird, uniting with the snow goose’s encapsulation of Frith’s unspoken love for him, provides bittersweet redemption for them both. It’s a fitting, haunting conclusion to a book that depicts a complicated, fragile relationship with sensitivity and care.

The Snow Goose Back

POINT OF ORDER: My copy of The Snow Goose comes complete with a later (1951) short story by Paul Gallico, The Small Miracle. In this, a young Italian boy, Peppino, takes on the might of the Catholic church for permission to cart his poorly donkey into the tomb of St Francis of Assisi, seeking a miracle cure for the ailing beast. It’s a charming if slight story, without the emotional complexity of The Snow Goose. In other words: this one’s definitely slightly trickier to read without laughing.

FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: At Christmas 1971, The Snow Goose was adapted as a one-off TV play, broadcast on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Tuesday 28th December. It starred Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter as Rhayader and Frith, and went out just after Wheelbase, in which presenter Barrie Gill looked at the potential cost of motoring holidays in 1972. It’s a fine piece of windswept 1970s drama:

UNPRECEDENTED FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: In 1975, the Guildford-based progressive rock band Camel wrote and recorded an entire album of music inspired by their love of The Snow Goose. An unflattered Gallico, by then aged 77 and in the final year of his life, threatened legal action. The album emerged minus the planned lyrics, but it’s still a record I like a  lot:

And, in 1976, an abridged version of the story, adapted and narrated by Spike Milligan, was released on RCA Records. Milligan, along with Q8 favourite and one-time Confessions soundtrack composer Ed Welch, also co-wrote the accompanying music. With additional composition from Harry Edgington, a familiar figure from Milligan’s wartime memoirs, and the inspiration for the Goons’ ‘Ying Tong Song’ (“Edge-ying-ton”).

MUSTINESS REPORT: 8/10. My copy has decidedly orange pages; not so much the colour of a snow goose, more a mucky duck. It once belonged to Strathclyde Regional Council Department of Education (Ayr Division) and was borrowed from the school library four times in total, being due for return on 4th March 1982, 7th October 1982, 24th May 1983 and 23rd October 1985. It’s got a couple of minor stains on the plastic sleeve, undoubtedly the result of a black coffee spillage in some long-ago school staff room.

3 thoughts on “Musty Books: “The Snow Goose” by Paul Gallico (1941)

  1. Liz Taylorson August 14, 2020 / 4:37 pm

    I have a beautiful illustrated edition of this from the late 1950s, illustrations by Peter Scott. My copy isn’t even slightly musty!


    • bobfischer August 14, 2020 / 9:05 pm

      Thanks! I’ve updated the post.


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