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The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Cover image © Penguin Books.
In need of an uplifting story to get 2017 started on the right note, Tom Michell's The Penguin Lessons seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

I was on the phone to a friend when I bought the book, stood in Hammersmith Broadway, craving a bit of non-fiction. I actually couldn't decide between this book and Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild so I ended up buying both.

In the mid-1970s, Tom Michell left the UK with a plane ticket to South America to start a teaching job at a private school in Argentina. The story starts when the author takes a stroll along a Uruguayan beach at the end of a holiday. Whilst walking he finds a horrific scene; hundreds of penguins, covered in oil and tar, washed up on the shore dead. 

A few moments later he notices some movement and spots a survivor; the penguin who names Juan Salvador:
One valiant bird was alive; a single surviving soul lying on its belly and covered in tar like the others, but making little spasmodic jerks of its head and wings. Death throes, I assumed.
After an initial fight against the grumpy bird, Juan Salvador, who is also referred to as Juan Salvado (‘saved’ rather than ‘saviour’), is taken back to the flat that Michell has been staying in and is cleaned. 

Satisfied with his efforts, Michell takes him back to the sea, leaves him to it, but soon realises that the bird is following him back up the beach. Despite his best efforts, the bird won't leave him alone.

So what would you do in this situation? You would smuggle the penguin into Argentina where you have a job teaching in an international school, of course.

What unfolds is a story, set in part against the social history of Argentina at the time – you learn of Eva Peron, descamisados and coups – whereby the penguin becomes an integral part of life at the school.

All the time, Michell tries to learn more about the small Magellanic penguin and the two of them create quite a bond in the process. Juan Salvador also becomes the school rugby team’s mascot and encourages a boy, who struggles academically, to swim.

Moments in the book are, at times, evocative of that most famous of South American travel stories, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Motorcyle Diaries, but with the inclusion of a penguin and a distinctly British undertone.

The book is light-hearted, a bit eccentric, and full of poignant moments, but, overall, carries the message that a penguin can teach us about the need to look after each other and to take care of the planet for all creatures before it’s too late.

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