The Incredible Journey

DSC02765The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

1961

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.

 DSC02766Sheila 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.

 UnknownBurnford 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.

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the house of sixty fathers book cover

The House of Sixty Fathers

The House of Sixty Fathers

by Meindert DeJong

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

1957

In 1941, a group of American pilots volunteered for a clandestine operation to assist the Chinese Air Force defend against the Japanese invasion.  Under the command of the legendary Claire Lee Chennault, the Flying Tigers became populist heroes for their piloting daring-do, renegade spirit, and success despite unequal odds.  When the U.S. officially entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chennault’s mercenary group became the nucleus for the U.S. Air Force presence in China – the nickname and the hallmark shark mouth design that decorated the noses of the bomber planes were retained.  Meindert DeJong (pronounced DeYoung), a Dutch-American writer who was just beginning his career as a children’s author, joined Chennault’s forces in China as a military pilot and historian.  His outfit adopted a Chinese war orphan and DeJong tried unsuccessfully to bring the boy to the U.S.

This true story was the genesis for The House of Sixty Fathers.  Tien Pao, a young village boy, is separated from his parents and baby sister when his sampan is swept down the river into Japanese territory.  Accompanied only by his pig, Glory-of-the-Republic, he hides in tiny caves by day and travels through the mountains by night, reduced to eating leaves to stave off his hunger.  He saves the life of a downed American pilot and the two are befriended by Chinese guerrilla fighters who assist their escape from Japanese soldiers.  Tien Pao makes his way to the town where he last saw his family, only to find it under attack, its inhabitants fleeing in confusion.  He eventually finds refuge in the house of sixty fathers, the dormitory of the American bomber pilots, until his moving reunion with his parents.

from house of sixty fathersMeindert DeJong’s genius was his ability to convey the world through the eyes of his protagonist, whether that be a Dutch girl or a stray dog.  In this book, he views the complexity of wartime from the vantage of a Chinese peasant boy – the thrill of witnessing the routing of an advancing Japanese column by a solitary strafing plane alongside the horror of watching terror-stricken horses drowning, his disgust at a starving child eating mud along with the visceral joy of his first taste of chocolate, the selfish desperation of refugees throwing themselves upon a packed train along with the emotionless empathy of a soldier who plucks him from the crowd to safety.  With unflinching honesty, DeJong presents the fear, loneliness, and chaos of war along with the comfort of human companionship, the anchoring influence of family, and the reassurance of a pet, however porcine.  Both frightening and reassuring, this is one of the most powerful stories of wartime ever written for children.