Jane Langton Gave Me Geese

In Wild­ness is the preser­va­tion of the World. ~ Hen­ry David Thore­au 

The FledglingIt’s rare a children’s book changes you when you’re an adult. I don’t mean fleet­ing Har­ry Potter/Team Edward crossover fan­dom, but gen­uine change (as with Water­ship Down). I was near­ly 30 when Jane Lang­ton’s book The Fledg­ling was pub­lished in 1980. At that stage of my not-yet-fledged career, I read children’s books by the boxload and was thrilled to dis­cov­er a new one by my favorite writer.

The Dia­mond in the Win­dow (1962) changed my reli­gion. At the age of ten, I declared myself a tran­scen­den­tal­ist, based on quotes by Emer­son and Thore­au sprin­kled through­out the fan­ta­sy. I was 15 when I read The Swing in the Sum­mer­house (1967). The same char­ac­ters swing through mag­ic por­tals that lead to thought-pro­vok­ing expe­ri­ences, none hard­er than the door­way labeled “Grow Up Now.” I could iden­ti­fy — I was eager to grow up, leave home, become a children’s writer! When I read The Aston­ish­ing Stere­o­scope (1971), I was already out in the world, aware it was no pic­nic. The Fledg­ling was pub­lished after a lengthy gap and earned a New­bery Honor.

Langton’s books make me long for the crisp New Eng­land autumns of barn jack­ets, apple buck­le, and wild geese stream­ing over white steepled church­es. In The Fledg­ling, lone­ly Georgie longs to fly. She con­nects with a lone migrat­ing gan­der. Nei­ther can find their place in the world, yet they find each oth­er. On moon­lit nights, the Goose Prince, as she calls him, car­ries Georgie over the town of Con­cord until she learns to glide on ther­mals. Georgie has nev­er been hap­pi­er. Then they are seen soar­ing over Walden Pond …

Cana­da geese were uncom­mon in cen­tral Vir­ginia when I was younger. They ply the Atlantic fly­way to migrate. But one Octo­ber after­noon, as I dropped off mem­os in my boss’s cor­ner office, I stood spell­bound as a string of large black and white birds rowed across the gray sky. New Eng­land had come South. I next saw Cana­da geese years lat­er at my stepfather’s grave­side ser­vice. It was March and the geese had stopped at a pond in the ceme­tery on their way north.

When I heard their bugling cry, I thought, Some­thing told the wild geese/It was time to go. Only a children’s writer would remem­ber a Rachel Field poem, even car­ry­ing a bro­ken heart. But I also felt a curi­ous lift­ing in that two-note call. On the anniver­sary of my stepfather’s death, I had the entire poem pub­lished in his Wash­ing­ton Post memoriam.

What is it about the sound of wild geese? Poet Robert Penn War­ren felt as many of us do: 

Long ago in Ken­tucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was hap­pen­ing in my heart.

Georgie hears the big birds first, “a‑WARK, a‑WARK!” She looks up. “They made a wav­ing pat­tern in the balmy Sep­tem­ber sky. From wing to labor­ing wing they passed the creamy air, gab­bling to each oth­er in their hoarse stri­dent talk.”

This past Sep­tem­ber — and when­ev­er I hear them — I watched as geese flew over. I looked up, too, admir­ing their buff waist­coats, their neat black feet tucked up under short wedge tails. In the book, every­one in Con­cord acknowl­edges the geese. “‘It sounds like fall,’ they said to each oth­er. “When the geese come back, you know it must be fall.’”

Not all New Eng­lan­ders appre­ci­ate the sound of geese. In 1897, Mabel Osgood Wright wrote from her Con­necti­cut home, “The honk­ing of Geese is a strange, unbird-like sound, and when they pass over at night and you hear the fan­ning of their wings it seems as if some sleep­ing cloud-gob­lin has awaked him­self with a snore.” The snore of a cloud-goblin!

The Fledg­ling is about more than fly­ing. It explores friend­ship in the purist sense, though some nar­row-mind­ed char­ac­ters mis­un­der­stand with dis­as­trous results. Essay­ist David Quam­men believes hear­ing geese “freshen[s] the soul … Wild geese, not angels, are humanity’s own high­est self … When they pass over­head, we are treat­ed to a glimpse of the same sort of sub­lime crea­ture­hood that we want bad­ly to see in ourselves.”

When I hear geese, I feel the need to pull myself up, be a bet­ter per­son, be wor­thy of those birds and that sky and this day before it’s gone. My heart feels glad.

Near the end of The Fledg­ling, the Goose Prince gives Georgie a present, a small round object. “Take care of it,” he says. When Georgie’s own bro­ken heart has healed, she real­izes the present is the whole world. The most pre­cious gift of all. Jane Lang­ton gave me wild geese. She also remind­ed me to take care of the present.

This fall, lis­ten for wild geese. Let their call lift you up over this trou­bled year. Look down on our only world and con­sid­er what you might change.

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3 years ago

The Fledgling”…I loved this book when I read it YEARS ago…I think I’ll pull it out again!

candice ransom
Reply to  Brenda
3 years ago

Oh, do read it again! I got so much more out of it when I re-read it this time … this year.

Joyce Sidman
3 years ago

Real­ly enjoyed this, Can­dace. The Dia­mond in the Win­dow was one of my all-time faves from my New Eng­land child­hood, and (like you) I loved The Fledg­ling when I read it as an adult. Thank you for remind­ing me of these books!

candice ransom
Reply to  Joyce Sidman
3 years ago

I’ve writ­ten before (and prob­a­bly will again) on how The Dia­mond in the Win­dow changed me in so many ways, life­long changes that have seen me through my adult­hood. When­ev­er I read any of Lang­ton’s books, I longed to live in New Eng­land where my favorite sea­son is tru­ly celebrated.

Sarah Sullivan
3 years ago

Gor­geous essay, Can­dace. Thank you for lift­ing me up this morning!

candice ransom
Reply to  Sarah Sullivan
3 years ago

Hi Sarah … I hope you look up one or two of Lang­ton’s books. The per­fect way to cozy up to autumn!

Linda Hay
Linda Hay
3 years ago

A love­ly mem­oir. I was in high school by the time Lang­ton’s books start­ed appear­ing, but her adult mys­ter­ies lat­er led me to them. A wise librar­i­an moved me to a won­der­ful career work­ing with child read­ers. As well as being a pub­lic and school librar­i­an, I start­ed teach­ing chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture cours­es in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. That led to tak­ing a class on a field trip to sites in Con­cord MA. One of the stops was the House with the Dia­mond in Win­dow, at that time a “home for unwed moth­ers.” One of them greet­ed us from a sec­ond floor win­dow, ask­ing if we had read the book,… Read more »

candice ransom
Reply to  Linda Hay
3 years ago

Lin­da, I’ve heard that Jane’s books often led peo­ple to become writ­ers, but how refresh­ing to know you were inspired to work as a chil­dren’s librar­i­an, the best job of all. I was so entranced by the actu­al house in Con­cord, that when I vis­it­ed Jane’s house on a CLNE field trip, I refused to look at it. Walden Pond, yes, but not that house. I did­n’t want Erik Bleg­vad’s icon­ic illus­tra­tion to be sul­lied by the real thing, fig­ur­ing it had been divid­ed into apart­ments. A home for unwed moth­ers is even worse! The Frag­ile Flag came from Jane’s own march into Wash­ing­ton for Civ­il Rights.… Read more »

constance vanhoven
3 years ago

Heard a large flock of snow geese fly­ing over late last evening. Could not see them, only hear them. I always feel such a sense of won­der when I hear their calls. Greg has taught me how to dis­tin­guish their calls from swans or Cana­di­an geese. Thank you for your essay! I have a new old book to read!

candice ransom
Reply to  constance vanhoven
3 years ago

I’ve only ever seen one flock of snow geese and they were too high to hear them call. How love­ly you have both kinds of geese and swans call­ing over­head on their way to places we mor­tals can only dream about.

Lynne Kratoska
3 years ago

Thank you, Can­dice! This was beautiful.

candice ransom
Reply to  Lynne Kratoska
3 years ago

Thank you, Lynne. You are most kind!

Rae McDonald
3 years ago

Can­dice, both the Fledg­ling and The Dia­mond In the Win­dow rang all the won­der­ful hap­py mem­o­ry bells for me as well. What a treat to read your insight and the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of our won­der­ful world.