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Friday, 29 January 2016

FFBs - Ludmilla and The Lonely

Two short novels by Paul Gallico can be found in this single volume (1978). Sometimes they have been collected with other Gallico stories, notably The Snow Goose and The Small Miracle.

In his day, Gallico was very popular. The Penguin blurb states his books ‘have achieved exceptionally high sales on both sides of the Atlantic.’ Rather than use the term best-seller, which seems to underplay the author just a little.

Ludmilla (1955) is barely 46 pages – including a good number of delightful black-and-white drawings by Reisie Lonette. It’s re-imagining the folklore surrounding Saint Ludmilla of Liechtenstein – set in 1823. There was a scrawny cow among the herd that pastured in the mountains, and it was referred to as The Weakling because it seemed incapable of producing milk; its owner feared it was destined to be slaughtered when the herd descended to the valley. Alois the herdsman was accompanied by his youngest daughter, Ludmilla, and he instructed the girl to look after the weakling cow while he led the herd higher to richer pasture. Little Ludmilla was adventurous for her age and led the cow into a secret quite magical place… and strange things happened. A parable about belief, and the need to serve and to be loved.

Told in an omniscient voice, the story has all the potential to be overly sentimental, yet isn’t quite. The religion is worn lightly, with humour. One of many stories where Gallico empathises with an animal.

The Lonely (1947) is completely different in subject matter. US airman Jerry Wright is a lieutenant stationed at an airbase in the England at the height of the Second World War. He is young and feels he still has to become a man, like his idol Major Lester Harrison, perhaps. He has a fiancĂ© waiting for him in New York. He is not a virgin – he has been with ladies of the night, but they don’t count. To modern sensibilities, he might not appear to be a likable person; yet he is of that time, when neither he nor his crew knew if they would return from the next mission against Nazi tyranny. ‘One did not want to die, but the chance was ever present, and therefore one lived more sharply, breathed more deeply, caressed the earth more firmly with one’s feet, looked with a more tender and loving eye upon the spring, gree grass, a sunny day, children playing in the street…’ (p155)

Jerry has been given a rest furlough for two weeks by the Flight Surgeon. His idol suggests he should spend the leave with one of the women from the base. But Jerry is reluctant: he doesn’t want to ‘dishonour’ a ‘good girl’, as opposed to the other kind. However, he is drawn to a friend who drinks and dances with him on occasion: Patches – Sgt P Graeme, WAAF. He is unaware that she is already in love with him. He asks her to go with him to Scotland – but is open enough to tell her that it would be with no strings, no attachments. A fun time. She was reluctant, but wanted to grasp even this fleeting time, and expected nothing more, though her heart would break.

Again, it’s ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, yet Gallico’s style is subversive and soon you’re immersed in the lives of both characters, despite the omniscient voice-over: because he evokes small details that ring true:

‘You could play at being a man, go through the outward motions of a gay and lighthearted adventure, a careless holiday to be put away as an episode of a war-torn world turned upside down, but what if you found that afterward the presence of the girl had entered into your bloodstream, that the touch of her hand on yours, the texture of her skin, the expression of her eyes, the feel and smell of her hair, the sound of her voice, were as necessary to you as the air you breathed and the food that sustained you?’ (p107)

Jerry was brought up to ‘do the right thing’ – but did that mean to eventually return to the States and marry his fiancĂ© – or risk all with Patches?  A romantic dilemma, satisfyingly told.

Gallico has been accused of sentimentality; so what? That’s what gets the heart beating, the tear ducts working. It taps into the human condition and is universal, despite what the literary critics might think.

Paul Gallico died in 1976, aged 78.

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