An Eagle in the Snow
272pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
November, 1940. Coventry has been bombed by the Germans and Barney and his mother have been left with nothing so they are on the train to London on their way to family and shelter in Cornwall. But just as a neatly-dressed stranger enters their compartment, a lone Messerschmitt 109 begins strafing the train. The engine driver makes a desperate dash to an upcoming tunnel, eventually stopping the train safely inside.
But Barney is terrified of darkness and with no lights he can feel his panic rising. The stranger has a box of matches but there are just five in it, and so, to distract Barney he lights one and begins to tell him a story…
There are two taglines on the front cover of this book, the first being “One moment that could have saved the world from war.” And that is the story that the stranger tells Barney and his Ma. An extraordinary tale based on the true story of Henry James Tandey, VC, DCM, MM, the most highly decorated private in the British Army in World War I, Morpurgo wrote the story after hearing of Tandey’s exploits and, like most of his stories, was compelled to write it so that the unimaginable courage shown by those who have gone before becomes real for those of us who come after.
Which leads to the second tagline, this one from Jackie French- “Brilliant. Historical fiction at its most magnificent.” Because if there is an historical fiction novel with either Jackie French’s or Michael Morpurgo’s name on it then you know that not only are you in for a meticulously researched, intriguing read but that you will be changed for having read. And so it is with this story. Tagged as “the man who could have stopped World War II” Tandey’s story is woven into a narrative that reaches deep into the soul of anyone with direct ties to the carnage of the 39-45 conflict and makes them wonder how their own life might have been different if their father/uncle/brother/friend had not had to spend their youth in the hell that was Europe at the time.
But this is not a facts-and-figures biography, although there is a brief synopsis of Tandey’s life included as a postscript – Morpurgo has taken the facts as they are known and woven them into a narrative that is as compelling for the reader as it is for Barney and his Ma. Is there ever a time when doing the right thing could be the worst mistake you ever made?
This is a story for independent readers who enjoy real historical fiction (as opposed to a story set in another time) and who are ready to be entertained and educated at the same time. It’s an easy read technically, but I, for one, wanted to know more and so new avenues have been opened for me to explore. Not the least of which is once again, considering how my dad’s experiences as a POW in Stalag VIIIB and being force-marched across Poland as part of the German’s human shield shaped him and consequently, me.