Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Eagle In The Snow by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo has crafted a beautiful story within a story. Set in 1940 England during the bombing of Britain, a stranger tells a young boy and his mother how a chance encounter and the decision to do the right thing appears to have been the wrong thing done.

The novel opens with a young boy, Barney travelling with his mother on the 11:50 train to London, on their way to the safety of Cornwall by the sea. Barney is ten years old and he lived on Mulberry Street in Coventry with his mother and father.  His father is now off to war, with the Royal Engineers in Africa. He and his mother have just endured weeks of bombing attacks by Germany in what will one day be known as the Blitz. The latest attack destroyed their home leaving them with nothing. Barney scrambled up the rubble of their home to find his toy train but was held off by the air raid warden. His grandpa took his to check his fields and there they found his beloved horse, Big Black Jack dead. Now Barney and his mom are off to stay with her sister in Mevagissey on the Cornwall coast.

In the train with them is a man whom Barney recognizes as the air-raid warden who pulled him off the rubble on Mulberry Street. Barney says nothing to his mother. But when his mother falls asleep on the train, Barney tells the stranger he recognizes him from Mulberry Street. The man tells Barney he should be fighting alongside his father but a wound from the last war has prevented him from being accepted. Everyone has told him he has done his part and has the medals to prove it. While looking out the window, Barney spots what he thinks is a Spitfire, a British plane coming directly towards the train. However the stranger recognizes it is as German Messerschmitt that is attacking the train. He pushed Barney and his now wide awake mother to the floor. The train races along faster and faster until it reaches a tunnel and roars inside. Then they hear the brakes screeching as the train struggles to stop inside the tunnel.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting Coventry Cathedral.

The tunnel is pitch black and Barney doesn't like the darkness. The stranger tells them that they will have to wait inside the tunnel until the German fighters are gone. He offers to tell Barney and his mother a story to pass the time waiting, just like they used to do in the trenches during the Great War. His story is about his friend, William Byron, who went by the name of Billy Byron and how the two of them grew up on Mulberry Street and then joined the army. At first being in the army was an adventure. The stranger and Billy were given good food, clothing and sent to South Africa. However, war came to Europe and they soon found themselves sent to the front where conditions were very different. On a march to the front, Billy encountered a little girl who was close to death. Against the orders of his Sergeant, he picked up the girl and took her to the field hospital. This experience made him determined to stop the war as quickly as possible.

The stranger continues his story as they wait for the German aircraft to leave so the train can leave the safety of the tunnel. Barney at times becomes upset at the darkness so as he's telling the story, the stranger strikes matches to comfort him with their light. Barney learns that Billy Byron was a brilliant soldier who was seriously wounded several times and won many medals including the Victoria Cross. Near the end of the war he spared the life of a German soldier at the Battle of Marcoing. Like most Great War veterans life was not easy after the war. Billy eventually located Christine and they married. At times he seemed fine, other times troubled. As Adolf Hitler comes to power and hostilities begin between Germany and Britain, a fateful night in the cinema reveals to Billy the seemlying terrible consequences of good deed done years ago.


An Eagle In The Snow is loosely based on the life of Henry Tandey who was a British soldier in World War I. Tandey was a Private in the Green Howard regiment. He survived the Battle of Ypres and was awarded the three highest awards for heroism in a six-week period in 1918. It is uncertain that Henry Tandey ever met Adolf Hitler. The story holds that they met each other at the Battle of Marcoing when a soldier wandered into the British and Tandey refused to shoot him because he was wounded. That soldier was supposedly Adolf Hitler.  Readers can do more research into this fascinating story Morpurgo recounts in his own novel from the following resources and decide for themselves if Tandey really did encounter Hitler near the end of the Great War:

Did British Soldier Spare Hitler's Life in WWI?

How a Right Can Make A Wrong.

Henry Tandey Spared Wounded Adolf Hitler's Life in First World War and Changed the World Forever.

Morpurgo tells his story with simplicity, capturing both the devastation experienced by Coventry during the Blitz in 1940 as well as the hardships of soldiers during the First World War. The story provides the framework for young readers to explore the question what if doing what you believe is the right thing at the time turns out to be the wrong choice in the end?In An Eagle In The Snow, readers are confronted with Byron's moral dilemma to rectify what now seems like a wrong. Years ago he encountered a wounded Adolf Hitler. Sick of war and the killing, he spared the German soldier's life only to learn years later he became one of history's most infamous men. Determined to rectify what he considers a terrible mistake, Billy Byron sets out for Hitler's stronghold of .. However when he does finally meet Hitler outside, he finds himself unable to carry through with his plan.

Of course we all must make choices as we go through life. Some choices are easier than others and many of those choices are influenced by the values we believe in. Billy Byron believed that the Great War was wrong. When he encountered Christine by the side of the road, he saw the harm it was doing to innocent people and he wanted to shorten the war. By the end of the war, Byron was sick of the killing when he had a chance to spare one German soldier after one of the last battles, he did so. To say that he had a chance to save the world from World War II if he had killed a young, wounded Adolf Hitler in 1918 is unfair to a man who was a courageous soldier. Billy Byron stayed true to his values as a soldier both in 1918 and in 1939.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of this novel, is the way in which the story is told. The story employs third person omniscient point of view to tell the present story set in 1940, while the stranger uses third person to tell Billy Byron's story. Neither the reader nor Barney know the identity of the stranger, although readers who know Henry Tandey's story will quickly recognize that the stranger is Billy Byron. But even then, Morpurgo gives his readers a little twist at the end.

An Eagle In The Snow has a great cover to draw readers in but the book is marred by poor binding and likely won't last long in even the most caring of readers. The novel has the lovely pencil illustrations by Michael Foreman which often feature in Morpurgo's novels. Quite simply, this is another outstanding story for children and adults from this award-winning British author.

Book Details:

An Eagle In The Snow by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins 2015
265 pp.

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