Gallico’s The Snow Goose was first published in 1941 and culminates in the death of its hero, the ‘hunchback’ artist Philip Rhayader, at the evacuation of Dunkirk after many successful forays to lift men off the beaches. It’s a story that could have been written for Angela Barrett to illustrate, for despite the specificity of its wartime setting, it has the timeless quality of fairy tale. The Essex coastal setting is described vividly in words: ‘greys and blues and soft greens are the colours, for when the skies are dark in the long winters, the many waters of the beaches and marshes reflect the cold and sombre colour.’ Yet there is ample space for this subtle and atmospheric illustrator to interact with the text and illuminate it in her own way.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the lonely artist (who is also a bird lover) is disturbed by a local girl, Frith, who brings him a snow goose with a broken leg. A friendship grows between them and endures over the years as the now tame goose returns again and again and as the girl grows older. A new kind of tension develops between the girl who has become a young woman and Philip but it is at this point that he sails off for Dunkirk, the snow goose circling watchfully above him.
Barrett makes confident use of the page with vignettes, single and half pages and a dramatic double page spread of a Dunkirk beach, alternating between an intensely grainy black and white (pencil?) that has almost the texture of paint and muted colour washes. Light is all important in the landscapes of the estuary as it is gleaming on the plumage of the goose or on a sail out at sea. Meanwhile Barrett’s rendition of Philip and Frith reinforces the fairy tale quality of Gallico’s text, referencing Beauty and the Beast, yet with all the pain and despair of what remains unsaid and unresolved between this particular couple. This is Barrett at her consummate best.