Enemies meet. A life is spared. But is mercy always moral?
An extraordinary middle-grade novel about a the young man who met a young Adolf Hitler and could have stopped WWII, from the author of War Horse.
England, 1940. Barney’s home has been destroyed by bombing, and he and his mother are traveling to the countryside with all their worldy belongings in one suitcase. When German planes attack, their train is forced to take shelter in a tunnel and there, in the darkness, a fellow passengera strangerbegins to tell them a story about two young soldiers who came face to face in the previous war. One British, one German. Both lived, but the British soldier was haunted by the encounter once he realized whose life he had spared: the young Adolf Hitler.
The British soldier made a moral decision. Was it the right one? Readers can ponder that difficult question for themselves with Michael Morpurgo's latest middle-grade novel An Eagle in the Snow.
Praise for An Eagle in the Snow:
"What if a British soldier had a chance to shoot Hitler on a WWI battlefield but opted to let him go instead? . . . The stranger’s descriptions of Billy’s compassion and emotional turmoil are gripping in their own right, but Morpurgo will catch some readers off guard with supernaturally tinged twists he drops in the final chapters and epilogue. Originally published in the U.K. in 2015, this is an intricately crafted contemplation of the wrenching consequences of good intentions gone awry." Publishers Weekly
"World War II has ravaged England, including the homes on Mulberry Road. Ten-year-old Barney and his mother are headed out to the country to Aunty Mavis’s home with all they have left in the world inside their luggage. A stranger boards the train and takes the seat across from them. After some small talk, the train begins to trudge forward, and they settle in for the ride. Suddenly, a German fighter plane surges from the sky and attacks the train. With the rat-a-tat of bullets pelting the train, the conductor races down the track toward a tunnel. As he slams on the brakes, everyone is plunged into total darkness. ... To pass the time, the stranger tells the story of two young soldiers from the previous war. The British soldier was the most decorated private of the First World War. The German soldier just might have been Hitler himself. This work of historical fiction, divided into four parts, will leave middle grade readers on the edge of their seats as they try to determine who the stranger is and how this random encounter during World War I could have altered history. Another gripping historical novel from the author of War Horse." School Library Journal
"Morpurgo’s gentle WWII tale is loosely based on a real British soldier who may or may not have spared Adolf Hitler’s life during WWI. ...The casual tone of the story the stranger tells is in compellingly sharp contrast to the powerful questions it raises about duty and honor. A couple of light twists at the end are not entirely unexpected. Morpurgo concludes the book with information about Henry Tandey, the real Billy Byron." Booklist
Praise for Listen to the Moon:
“A poignant and life-affirming story from a master.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Morpurgo offers powerful descriptions of shipwreck, mass drowning, and devastation, as well as healing and growth.” Publishers Weekly
“Superbly written. . . . This is one of Morpurgo's best works to date; a first purchase for middle grade and teen collections.” School Library Journal
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
An Eagle in the Snow
By Michael Morpurgo
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2017 Michael Morpurgo
All rights reserved.
The train was still in the station, and I was wondering if we'd ever get going. I was with my ma. I was tired. My arm was hurting and itching at the same time, inside the plaster. I remember she was already at her knitting, her knitting needles tick-tacking away, automatically, effortlessly. Whenever she sat down, Ma would always be knitting. Socks for Dad, this time.
"This train's late leaving," Ma said. "Wonder what's up? That clock on the platform says it's well past twelve already. Still, not hardly surprising, I suppose, under the circumstances." Then she said something that surprised me. "If I drop off to sleep, Barney," she told me, "just you keep your eye on that suitcase, d'you hear? All we got in this world is up there in that luggage rack, and I don't want no one pinching it."
I was just thinking that was quite a strange thing to say, because there was no one else in the carriage except the two of us, when the door opened and a man got in, slamming the door behind him. He never said a word to us, hardly even acknowledged we were there, but took off his hat, put it up on the rack beside our suitcase, and then settled himself into the seat opposite. He looked at his watch and opened up his paper, his face disappearing behind it for a while. He had to put it down to blow his nose, which was when he caught me staring at him and nodded.
Everything about him was neat, I noticed that at once, from his highly polished shoes to his trim mustache and his collar and tie. I decided right away that he didn't look like the sort of man who would pinch Ma's suitcase. There was also something about him that I thought I recognized; I had the feeling I might have seen him before. Maybe I hadn't. Maybe it was just because he seemed about the same age as Grandpa, with the same searching look in his eye.
But this stranger was neat, and there was nothing neat about my grandpa. My grandpa was a scarecrow, with his hair always tousled — what there was of it — his hands and face grimy from delivering his coal, and that was after he had washed. This stranger had clean hands, and clean nails too, as well looked after as the rest of him.
"Hope I pass inspection, son," he said, eyeing me meaningfully.
Ma nudged me and apologized for my rudeness before she turned on me. "How many times have I told you not to stare at people, Barney? Say sorry to the gentleman now."
"Don't you worry, missus," he said. "Boys will be boys. I was one once myself, a while ago now, but I was." Then, after a moment or two, he went on: "S'cuse me, missus, but this is the London train, isn't it? The 11:50, right?"
"Hope so," said Ma, nudging me again because I was still staring. I couldn't help myself. The station master came past our window then, waving his green flag, blowing his whistle, his cheeks puffed out so that his face looked entirely round, like a pink balloon, I thought. Then we were off, the train chuffing itself, wearily, reluctantly, into slow motion.
"'Bout time," said Ma.
"Do you mind if I let in a bit of air, missus?" the stranger asked. "I like a bit of air."
"Help yourself," Ma told him. "It's free."
He got up, let the window down a couple of notches on the leather strap, and then sat down. He caught my eye again, but this time he smiled at me. So I smiled back.
"Nine, are you?" he asked me.
Ma answered for me. "Ten. He's a little small for his age. But he's growing fast now. He should be too. He eats for England. Don't know where he puts it."
She was talking about me much as Grandpa might talk about the marrows in his allotment, on and on, but with the same pride and joy, so I didn't mind too much.
The train was gathering speed now, getting into its stride, sounding happier. Diddle-dee da, diddle-dee da, diddle-dee dee, diddle-dee da. I loved that sound, loved that rhythm. Nothing more was said for some time. The stranger went back to reading his paper, and I looked out of the window at the rows of bombed-out streets we were passing, and I thought of Grandpa's marrows and his allotment shed, which had been blasted to pieces in the same air raid a couple of nights before. I remembered how he had stood there looking down at the crater where once his vegetables had been growing, all in tidy rows, his cabbages and his leeks and his parsnips. Grandpa's allotment was the only thing tidy about him. That allotment had been his life.
"I'll dig it again, Barney," he'd said, his eyes filling with anger, "you see if I won't. We'll have all the carrots and onions and tatties we need. The beggars who done this, I won't let them win." He brushed away the tears with the back of his hand, and they were fierce tears. "You know something, Barney," he went on, "it's funny: all through the last war, in the trenches, I never hated 'em. They were just Fritzis, fighting like we were. But now it's different. They done what they done to Coventry, my place, my city, my people. I hate 'em, and for what they done to my allotment I hate 'em too. They got no right." He took my hand and held it tight. He'd done that often enough before when I was upset. Now it was him that was upset, and I was squeezing his hand, I was doing the comforting.
But when it came to Big Black Jack, there was no comforting him.
All night during the air raid we'd been down in the shelter in Mulberry Road clutching one another, all of us knowing the next bomb might be the one to get us. You tried not to listen for the next one, but you did. With every bomb that fell you tried to believe it was the last one. But it never was. Grandpa had been the rock Ma and I had clung to, his arms firm and strong around us, holding us tight, and singing his songs, his voice hoarse and loud above all the whimpering and the crying and screaming, and louder still when the bombs were coming closer, when the ground was shaking, when the shelter was full of dust.
When at last the all-clear siren sounded and the terror was over and we came up out of the shelter — how many hours we were down there I do not know — we found the world about us a place of rubble and ruin, hot with fires that were still smoldering everywhere. Mulberry Road, what was left of it, was filled with choking acrid smoke that hung like a fog around us and above us. There was no good air to breathe, no sky to see.
Hoping against hope, we made our way home, to our house at the end of the road. But we had no house. We had no home. And it wasn't just our place that was gone. The whole street was unrecognizable, simply not there. Only the lamppost was left, the one outside where our house had been, the one that shone into my window at nighttime. Friends and neighbors were there, a policeman and an air-raid warden, all clambering over the rubble, scrabbling and searching. Ma said she would stay and see if there was anything that could be recovered. She told Grandpa to take me away. She was upset, crying, and I could tell she didn't want me with her. But my train set was in there somewhere, under all the ruins, and my red London bus I'd got for Christmas and all the tin soldiers on my shelf, my special cockleshell too from the beach at Bridlington.
I ran up onto the rubble and started climbing on my hands and knees.
I was going to look. I was going to find them. I had to. But the air-raid warden caught me by the arm, holding me back, and then, despite all my protests, he was carrying me down again to Ma. "My bus," I cried, "my soldiers, my things."
"It's too dangerous, Barney," she said, shaking my shoulders to make me listen. "Just go with Grandpa. Do as you're told, please, Barney. I'll find what I can, I promise."
So Grandpa took me off to his allotment, just to find out if it was all right, he said. But I knew really that it was because Ma didn't want me there around all those crying people. Mrs. McIntyre was sitting on the pavement outside her shop, her stockings in tatters, her legs bleeding. She was staring into space, fingering her rosary beads, her lips moving in silent prayer. Mr. McIntyre was there somewhere but no one could find him.
It wasn't far from the allotment to the field where Grandpa kept Big Black Jack, our old cart horse, and Grandpa's soul mate since Grandma died — mine too, come to that. Big Black Jack was the horse Grandpa worked with and talked to all day and every day as they delivered coal all around the city, and I'd go with him sometimes, after school and at weekends. I couldn't carry the sacks of coal — they were too heavy. My job was to fold the empty sacks for Grandpa and pile them neatly in the back of the cart, and to make sure Big Black Jack always had corn in his sack and water enough to drink. So Big Black Jack and me, we were best mates.
At first, everything seemed just as it should be: the rickety old shed still standing, and the water bucket by the door full of water, the hay net hanging limp and empty. But there was no sign of Big Black Jack.
Then we saw the smashed fence. He'd got free — not surprising, with all that bombing. "He's took off somewhere," Grandpa said. "He'll be fine. That horse can look after hisself. He'll be fine. He's done it before. He'll be back. He'll find his way home, always does."
But I knew even as he was saying it that he was just telling himself, hoping it was true, but fearing the worst.CHAPTER 2
It was only moments later that we found Big Black Jack lying there, stretched out on the grass at the edge of the woods. And through the trees we saw the crater now where a bomb had fallen. The trees around had been blasted, burned, and stunted. Big Black Jack lay so still. There didn't seem to be a mark on him. I looked into his wide-open eyes. Grandpa was kneeling by his great head, feeling his neck. "Cold," he said. "He's cold. Poor old boy. Poor old boy." He cried silently, his whole body shaking.
I didn't cry then, but I nearly was now, in the train, as I remembered it all again, the kindness in his eye, how I longed for him to breathe, not to be so still. I felt the tears welling up inside me.
"You all right, son?" said the stranger opposite, leaning forward. Ma answered for me again, and I was relieved she did this time, for there were tears filling my mouth too, and I couldn't have spoken even if I'd wanted to.
"We was bombed out," Ma explained to him. "Bit upset he is."
"And he's busted his arm too," the man said. "How did that happen?" "Football," Ma told him. "He's mad on his football, aren't you, Barney?"
I nodded. It was all I could do.
"Lost the house," Ma went on. "On Mulberry Road it was. Lost just about everything. Then, so did lots of others I s'pose. But we got lucky. Still here, aren't we?" She put her hand on mine. "Busted arm in't much, when you think ... So, mustn't grumble, must we? No point, is there? Just thank our lucky stars. We're off to stay with my sister down in Cornwall, by the sea, aren't we, Barney? Mevagissey. Lovely down there. No bombs there neither. Just sea and sand and sunshine — and lots of fish. We like fish and chips, don't we, Barney? And we like Aunty Mavis, don't we?"
I did, in a way. But I still couldn't speak.
Ma stopped talking for a while, and we sat there, the train rocking and rattling, the smoke flying past the window. The rhythm was changing, faster, faster. Dee dum, dee dum, dee dummidy dum.
"They hit the cathedral an all, y'know," Ma said. "Hardly nothing left of it. Lovely old place too. Beautiful that spire, see it for miles around. What they want to go and do that for? That's wicked, that is. Wicked."
"It is," said the stranger. "And I know Mulberry Road as it happens. I grew up there. In a manner of speaking. I seen what they done to it. I was there afterward, after the raid, pulling folk out. Civil Defense, Air-raid Warden. That's what I do," the stranger went on. He seemed to be talking to himself now, thinking out loud, remembering. "Civil Defense, fire watching, firefighting. But you can't fight a firestorm. Inferno it was. I was there. So I didn't do much good, did I?"
That was the moment I realized where I had seen the stranger before. He was the air-raid warden I had seen up on the rubble, who had carried me down. He looked different out of uniform, without his tin hat. But it was him. I was sure of it. He was looking hard at me then, frowning, almost as if he had recognized me at the same moment.
"'Spect you did your best," Ma said, oblivious, busying herself with her knitting. "All anyone can do, isn't it? Barney's pa, he's away, overseas, in the army. In the Royal Engineers. He's doing his best. Like his grandpa too. He's staying behind in Coventry, says he's going to carry on like before. Coalman, he is, family business. Houses got to be kept warm, he says. Stoves got to be lit, he says. Can't let down his customers. And I says to him: 'There aren't hardly any houses left.' And he says: 'Then we got to build them up again, haven't we?' So he's staying, doing his best, doing what's right, that's what he thinks. And that's what I think too. No one can ask for more. Just do what you think is right, and you can't go far wrong. You just got to do your best. S'what I tell Barney, don't I, dear?"
"Yes, Ma," I said, finding my voice again. And it was true, she was always telling me that. The teachers at school told me much the same thing, just about every day, in fact.
"But sometimes," said the man, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, "the problem is that your best is not enough. Sometimes, what seems right at the time turns out to be wrong." He sat back in his seat then as if he'd had enough of all this talking. Ma obviously hadn't recognized him. I wanted to tell her, but I couldn't, not with him there. He turned away to look out of the window, and for a long time none of us spoke.
I love trains, everything about them, the hissing and the puffing, the rhythm and the rattle and the rocking, the whistling and the whooping, the roar as you burst into a tunnel, into the deep thunderous blackness, and then suddenly, with no warning, you're out again into the bright light of day, the horses galloping off over the fields, the sheep and crows scattering. I love stations too, the bustle of them, the slamming of doors, the guard in his peaked cap, flag waving, and the engine breathing, waiting for the whistle. Then, the whistle at last, and the chuff, chuff, chuffing.
I'd told Dad the last time he was home on leave that I had made up my mind to be a train driver when I grew up. Dad loved tinkering with engines — generators, motorcycles, cars — he could fix anything. So he was pleased I was going to be a train driver, I could tell. He told me the steam engine was just about the most beautiful machine man ever created. Just being in the train that morning was a comfort to me. I may not have been able to put out of my mind the night of terror down in the shelter, nor the dreadful sights we had witnessed the next day — Mrs. McIntyre sitting there on the pavement with her rosary beads, her home and her life in ruins — our house reduced to rubble, and Grandpa kneeling over Big Black Jack. But the rhythm and rocking of the train soothed me somehow, and made me sleepy too.
Beside me, Ma had stopped talking altogether and was fast asleep, her head hanging down loose as if it would fall off at any moment. Her hands were still holding her knitting needles, and her ball of wool lay in her lap. Half a sock for Dad already done.
So that left just me and the stranger opposite — who, it turned out, was not such a stranger after all. He was looking at me from time to time as if he was about to ask me a question, then thought better of it. Finally, he leaned forward, speaking to me under his breath: "It was you I carried down, after the raid, wasn't it, son? In Mulberry Road?" I nodded.
"Thought so," he said. "Mulberry Road kids, you and me both then. Never forget a face. I remember thinking, as I was carrying you down, that you reminded me of me — at your age, I mean. I had a busted arm once, when I was little. Not football — fell off a bike. Good to meet up again. Spitting image of me, you are." He was smiling at me and nodding. Then he went on: "Your dad, where is he, where's he fighting? Where did the army send him?"
"Africa," I told him. "In the desert. He looks after the tanks, makes them work, mends them when they break. Sand gets into everything, he says. Hot too, he says, millions of flies."
Excerpted from An Eagle in the Snow by Michael Morpurgo. Copyright © 2017 Michael Morpurgo. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a based on a true story, historical fiction book for middlegrades and up. Barney and his mother are traveling on a train when it needs to hide in a tunnel to avoid bombing by the German planes overhead. With them in their car is a stranger who proceeds to tell them an amazing story about Private Billy Byron. This character is based upon a real soldier from WWI by the name of Private Henry Tandy. The story he tells is of his friend Billy and all the wonderous and amazing things he did in the war that earned him several medals. He also told of the German soldier "Fritz" as they were all called, that he let go at the end of the war. He did not want to kill one more person. Would his decision come back to haunt him? This was a relatively quick read and one that I didn't want to put down once I got past the first chapter. The character of Billy was so well written, it was as if you knew him. This is a great story to read with children ages 10 and up. The discussions you could have, the predicting and alternate endings if things had been different are sure to elicit fantastic conversations and ideas. A must read for history students learning about the World Wars. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this book via Netgalley.