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The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk by Paul Gallico (A Review).

I lived for a year in Kent, England. The eastern shore geography, wetlands, plants, and animals fascinated me. The area is a magical world.

Snow Goose in Marsh

Snow Goose in Marsh

Enter a Magical, Natural World

Author Gallico's Descriptions of the Great Essex Marsh

Paul Gallico, the author of "The Snow Goose," describes this Essex marsh in the opening pages of this book. I like how he describes the feelings of loneliness that the birds bring to the marsh: "It is desolate, utterly lonely, and made lonelier by the calls and cries of the wildfowl that make their homes in the marshlands and saltings - the wild geese and the gulls, the teal and widgeon, the redshanks and curlews that pick their way through the tidal pools."

Before Gallico introduces our human characters, he describes the delicate balance between humans and the marsh: "Of human inhabitants there are none, and none are seen, with the occasional exception of a wild-fowler or native oyster-fishermen, who still ply a trade already ancient when the Norman came to Hastings."

The Main Characters

Phillip Rhayader

In 1930, 27-year-old Philip Rhayader bought an old lighthouse and the marshland and saltings surrounding it. Rhayader's arrival tips the balance between humans and the marsh. Rhayader is a hunchback who prefers, for many reasons, a life away from the nearby towns and villages, He makes a refuge for migrating fowl on his land, and this with his paintings of marsh and birds, plus a sixteen-foot marsh boat fill Rhayader's time.

Twelve-year-old Fritha from a Nearby Village

Three years into Rhayader's solitary life, a grimy twelve-year-old girl, described as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery but frightened of the hunchback from stories told of him, comes needing his help. She carries in her arms the burden of an injured snow goose and seeks Rhayader's recognized skill as a mender of wounded fowl. Firth (Fritha, a Norse name for peace and protection) is more concerned about healing the goose than her fear of the hunchback. She flees this first meeting once she believes that Rhayader will help the bird, but promises to return.

The Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens Atlantica)

The young bird flying her habituated course to southern feeding grounds from her native Canada was pushed far off enough course to end up exhausted in the Essex marsh. Fowlers shot her; Firth found her.

Firth regularly returned to the lighthouse that first winter. She is there on a June morning in time to call Rhayader to watch their "Lost Princess," La Princesse Perdue, take to the skies. She is heading toward the summer breeding grounds of the snow geese.

The following October, above a lead-colored northeast wind, Rhayader hears the high clear note of the Princess above the lighthouse. She has returned to sojourn with Rhayader and Firth until she flys off for the summer breeding grounds. In the following years, the Princess came and went from the marsh regularly, but there was one year she did not come at all. Rhayader was desolate; Firth did not come to the lighthouse. The bird, however, did resume its schedule of leaving and returning. However, the times she was gone decreased in length until she left no more.

Time Moves On

Firth also came and went from the lighthouse and Rhayader. The time is 1940, and Firth has matured from the twelve-year-old girl into a nineteen-year-old young woman. Rhayader is now thirty-seven. As they realize that the Princess has accepted the lighthouse and the marsh, unspoken words rise between Philip and Firth. Firth, suddenly frightened, flees filled with a sharp sense of loss.

Meanwhile, the outside world is exploding and burning. Bomber airplanes fly close above across the English Channel and the North Sea to France and back. Firth returns to the lighthouse, ostensibly to check on the Princess. She finds Rhayader loading his boat with supplies. She speaks plaintively, "Philip, Ye be goin' away?"

He explains about the men trapped across the North Sea at Dunkirk and how the call was out for all boats to help evacuate the men. Unsophisticated Firth feels the danger and laments, "Philip! Must 'ee go? You'll not come back. Why must it be 'ee?” Rhayader charges Firth with looking after the fowl and sails toward the sea. The white-feathered Princess rises from the marsh to follow the boat while Firth stands watching them both.

The Powerful Ending

Gallico stitches the rest of the novella together as though he had heard the story in bits and pieces. I will leave this brilliant and powerful ending full of local dialect and bewilderment for you the reader to enjoy without my comments. Firth waits and watches; Princess finally returns to "tell" Firth what she already senses. Rhayader will not return. The unspoken, but feeling, love between Firth and Philip climaxes in the wilds of the marsh. Firth takes the canvas that Philip painted with all of his soul of her and the Princess that first summer to her village home. Finally, the damages of war allow the sea and marsh to reclaim the lighthouse and all around it. The remaining wildfowl flee.

My Remarks

This story is as old as I am. First published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, Gallico rewrote “The Snow Goose" to create a short novella for young adults published in book form on April 7, 1941.

Gallico uses England's Essex Marsh which borders the English Channel as the initial setting for a different kind of love story between Firth and Philip. The Dunkirk evacuation, the rescue of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, in the north of France, serves as the secondary setting and climax of "The Snow Goose."

I question how much adolescents might glean from the marsh descriptions, the dialects, and the underlying yearnings of Firth and Philip's nontraditional and uncommon love. Students might also need background information on the Dunkirk Evacuation. "The Snow Goose" might be read and discussed as strictly a human-animal interaction such as "Old Yeller," and "Where the Red Fern Grows."

I treasure the story of "The Snow Goose" for all of the elements that Gallico uses to construct the story: the quiet isolation of the marsh and its inhabitants, the noise and confusion of the Dunkirk evacuation, the gentle and unassuming relationship of Firth and Philip, and the magic of the snow goose.

An Captivating Novel: Eight Decades Old and Still in Print

"The Snow Goose" was first printed in 1941 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., a New York publishing house. I can not remember how or why I first read this novel that is as old as I am. However, "The Snow Goose" is now one of my favorite in-print books. Reading the story transports me to one of my favorite places, a marsh with abundant grasses, sunlight, and bird-cries.

There are now 30 hardcover in-print English copies by different publishers as well as a print copy in modern Greek and one in Vietnamese. The novel is available in these different formats: Kindle, Audiobook, Hardcover, Paperback, and MP3CD

Golden Marsh Grasses


BBC Film

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) originally produced "The Snow Goose" starring Richard Harris (Philip Rhyadar) and Jenny Agutter (Fritha) in England as a Play of the Month in 1971. The Hallmark Hall of Fame then presented this production in the U.S. as a TV movie on November 15, 1971. It is impossible to find a DVD or any commercial form of this 60-minute movie. Agutter received an Emmy for her work in "Snow Goose."

A copy of the original movie in five parts is on YouTube. The quality is weak because it is an old print and rerecorded for YouTube with old equipment. There are several other 50-to-55 minutes copies of "Snow Goose" also available on YouTube.

The Snow Goose (A Novel) and Dunkirk (A Film)

"The Snow Goose" story is set against the backdrop of World War I, specifically the Dunkirk evacuation. The release of the film, a BBC production, coincided with the 60th Anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation in 2004. It's documentary-style provides a rich historical background for the generations of readers, like myself and family, born since the 1940s. Vintage photos, and movie footage, letters, and journals, as well as interviews with evacuation survivors, bring alive the world of Philip Rhayader and Fritha outside the marsh to readers. The film also shows footage of the salt marshes and boat moorings, which brings alive the world of the snow goose. The film includes an ensemble cast for reenacted action scenes. I strongly suggest that this film or one similar educate readers about one of the major themes of this enchanting novel.

Stage Adaptation

Jenine Collocott, James Cairns and Taryn Bennett of Contagious theatre company based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa adapted Gallico's words into a stage adaptation of "The Snow Goose" in the early 1990s. Jenine Collocott designed and directed the adaptation which starred James Cairns (Rhyadar) and Taryn Bennett (Fritha). Duncan Gibbon did the stage construction while Peter Cornell designed the sound.

Birding Points in the Great Essex Marsh

Is the Great Essex Marsh a Place for You to Visit?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Georgene Moizuk Bramlage


Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 17, 2014:

@WriterJanis2: Hi Janis, Thanks for taking the time ti stop by and read this lens, and comment upon it. I appreciate all three. I certainly hope that you might also find time to read this novella.

WriterJanis2 on March 16, 2014:

I have never read this book, but you make it sound quite interesting.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 14, 2014:

@ecogranny: Grace, Thanks so much for visiting and reading my review, and taking the time to comment so thoughtfully on it. At the ages of 13 and 14, I probably would have loved the book - probably did read it for the first time around that age - but I have always used books to escape and dream - take me to other times and worlds. I will have to check out whether a story like this appeals to my young teen grandchildren whom I am happy to say are taken up with C.S. Lewis - "Narnia" - and J. R. R. Tolkien - Hobbit books. And I digress, to say that, my husband and I found, and still find, these series by such thoughtful and meticulous writers, to be wonderful springboards of conversation. On the other hand, there is a review on GoodReads by a homeschooled teen who absolutely trashed "Snow Goose." Again, thank you so much for your comments.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 14, 2014:

@Jo-Jackson: Hi! I bet there are lots of lovely birds, but no snow geese in your part of the world. Thanks, however, for visiting, reading and taking the time to comment on my review!

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 14, 2014:

@RinchenChodron: Hi, Thanks for visiting, reading and commenting upon this book review. Actually, I've lived most of my adult life in New England which abounds with swamps and marshes - my favorite haunts - and I have visited England and some of their north-east marshes. Yes, indeed, these marshes are very different to your high and dry Colorado meadows. It's good to imagine though, isn't it?

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 14, 2014:

@MariaMontgomery: Mia, Thanks so much for visiting my Snow Goose lens, reading it and commenting upon it. I am so happy that my review was able to help bring this story to life for you.

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on March 13, 2014:

You really brought this story to life for me. Well done.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 13, 2014:

@Arachnea: Thank you so much for stopping by, reading and commenting on this lens. All three are deeply appreciated. Much of this area is now devoted to bird and natural sanctuaries.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 13, 2014:

@Colin323: Hi, Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting on the lens. It means a great deal to me to hear from someone who is not only familiar with the area, but with the various editions of the books. I knew that Sir Peter Scott had illustrated one edition (I thought it was the first) but did not know that that Scott was considered an ornithologist. It is said by a few critics that Gallico modeled the protagonist Philip Rhayader on Scott. Thanks again, and especially, for the tip on the book.

Colin323 on March 12, 2014:

I lived in Essex close to the marshes for a number of years ( I was a village bobby at one of the villages along the coast). It's a beautiful, raw, lonely place, and this novella certainly catches the essence of it. There is an illustrated edition of this book - illustrations by Ornithologist, Peter Scott - that is worth searching for: glorious colour illustrations, and very collectable in first edition, with its dustjacket intact.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on March 11, 2014:

I would enjoy surroundings such as you describe. This sounds like a peaceful book to read when quiet is what I'm in need of. Great review.

RinchenChodron on March 11, 2014:

I have visited England and this does sound like a wonderfilled book relating to nature in your neck of the woods, which is way opposite of the high dry country here in Colorado. Great review!

Jo-Jackson on March 11, 2014:

Lovely book Lovely review.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on March 11, 2014:

It's been decades since I last read this story. You've inspired me to take it off the bookshelf and enjoy a lovely pot of tea and a re-read. I remember shivering deliciously with the cold when first I read it, although it was hot summer where I lived at the time, so I would say it gave me good feelings about the faraway seashore marshes in England.

Regarding your questioning the book's appropriateness for adolescents and young adults, If memory serves, I first read this story in junior high or high school. I found it wonderfully tragic, romantic and evocative. Young people have strong, agile, questioning minds. I have no doubt this story can touch their hearts and inform their minds, as it did mine all those years ago.

I love that you brought that up, and I appreciate so much your thoughtful review.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 10, 2014:

@Virginia Allain: Hi! Thanks for stopping by, reading this lens and commenting upon it! You've made my day because I love sharing books with others. I am so glad to be the impetus behind your rereading this wonderful story...even if it ends sadly.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on March 10, 2014:

It has been ages since I read this book. Time to get it out and savor the story again. Each time one rereads a book, you bring a different perspective to it.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 09, 2014:

@Elsie Hagley: Hi! Thanks for stopping, reading and commenting on my lens. I appreciate all :+) I am thankful that this lens inspired you to reread "The Snow Goose." Obviously, I think it is a great read.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on March 08, 2014:

Very nice review, I enjoyed it, I will be reading this book again as I enjoyed it very much when I last read it, thanks for reminding me I had forgotten about it. Thanks.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 08, 2014:

@Merrci: Hi Merrrci, Thanks so much for visiting this lens and for your gracious comments I am glad to hear that you also enjoy the acting of Richard Harris! Have a great day!

Merry Citarella from Oregon's Southern Coast on March 08, 2014:

I wish I could be there right now. Lovely review with such a sweet story. Going to back to watch Richard Harris (just love him) now. Thanks for sharing this.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 07, 2014:

@Heidi Vincent: Thank you, FreshStart for visiting this lens. It is a lovely sight to behold. I am so sorry that the Book Review template, while a good one does not allow for more art work / photos in a large format. I had to made a choice of whether to use the illustration of the 1st edition book or a photo / illustration that a colleague in photo group did of the snow goose flying over Dunkirk.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 07, 2014:

@sybil watson: Hi! Thanks for visiting! The book is great for any day especially if you have someone to read it to, or you're the recipient of the reading. There have been many movements in England to preserve the marshlands to provide grounds for migrating wildfowl. As a result there is a lot of online information about the marshes / fens.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 07, 2014:

@SteveKaye: Hi Steve...Honk! Honk! this book is such a wonderful depictions of these magnificent birds. (I even like Canadian Geese!)

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 07, 2014:

@smine27: Hi! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting on my Snow Goose lens. London is indeed a beautiful and historic city, but I've always really loved exploring the byways like the Essex Marsh. It also has probably changed a lot since the days of the early 19th century that is portrayed in the book. It's been too many years since I last visited England.

Georgene Moizuk Bramlage (author) from southwestern Virginia on March 07, 2014:

@SusannaDuffy: Hi Susanna! Glad to know we have something in common - wetlands / marshlands. Granted the book is readable by YA, but the beauty and subtle themes probably escape most except for the dreamers.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on March 07, 2014:

I love the Wetlands, they're beautiful, magical places and I love this book too. It's been a long, long time since I read it and, like you, am surprised to see it listed as YA.

Shinichi Mine from Tokyo, Japan on March 07, 2014:

I dream of visiting places like this. The only place I got to visit in England was London, which I found to be such a beautiful city.

SteveKaye on March 07, 2014:

Well done. Honk if you like geese!

sybil watson on March 07, 2014:

I would love to visit this part of England and see the marsh and birds. The Snow Goose sounds like a great book for a rainy day.

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on March 07, 2014:

I would love to visit. It would be a lovely sight to behold. Nature always holds wonder and beauty. Thanks for sharing, Cercis.

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