The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
Illustrated by Carl Burger
Everyone knows the story. A trio of animals, two dogs and a cat, cross 250 miles of Canadian woods to be reunited with their owner family. They pass in and out of the lives of a medley of wilderness residents – an Ojibway clan at a wild rice harvest, a hardscrabble Finnish immigrant family, an eccentric hermit, a kind-hearted elderly couple – all of whom offer momentary respite from the hardships of the journey. They encounter, to ill effect, a series of wild animals – a bear cub and mother, a lynx, a porcupine. Sustained by their mutual loyalty and the unwavering determination of their leader, they succeed. We know there will be a happy ending, but the book has emotional force. While Luath and Tao are having their joyous reunions, there is not a dry eye when young Peter presumes his dear Bodger to be dead, though we know the dog is not far behind.
Sheila Burnford was a keen observer, and this is the reason for reading the book rather than leaving the plot line to the two movies that have popularized the story. She brought the eyes of a newcomer to the Canadian wilderness (she was a transplant from post-war England) and her detailed descriptions of the Indian summer woods mark the passage of time and create a depth of natural setting unusual in a children’s book. She was also a sensitive observer of animals and she had an uncanny ability to capture the distinctive behaviors, characters, and interrelationships of her three protagonists – the Siamese cat, the young Labrador retriever, and the old white English bull terrrier. Old Bodger – irrepressible, good-humored, clownish, ingratiating – was Burnford’s obvious favorite. She describes his nautical rolling gait and gargoylish grin with the sure touch of one who knew this animal well. All three animals were based on pets that she had owned.
Burnford brings this same sixth sense for animals to Bel Ria, a little known gem of a book. It was not written for children, but then neither was The Incredible Journey. It concerns a spirited little performing dog who travels the open roads of France with a monkey, a horse, a donkey, and a Gypsy couple. When the Gypsy caravan is strafed by a German stuka during the 1940 Allied retreat, the surviving dog and monkey attach themselves to an English corporal who had been aided by the Gypsy woman when he was wounded. He manages to smuggle them aboard the Lancastria during the chaotic evacuation, and together they survive the sinking of the ship (4,000 others were not so fortunate) and eight hours in the oil-coated Atlantic until they are rescued by a British destroyer. The dog, as Ria, becomes the charge of the brusk sick berth attendant and then, as Bel, the pampered pet of an imperious semi-invalid spinster, both of whom are transformed by his passage through their lives. Burnford is extraordinary in creating the scenes of war – the dusty streams of refugees fleeing the German invasion of the Loire Valley, the plight of drowning men necessarily abandoned by the convoy crossing the Atlantic, the terror of crazed animals running amok during the Plymouth blitz (she was a volunteer ambulance driver at the time). She is equally extraordinary in portraying the nuanced complexity of a small dog swept up by war.