What a delightful little (true) story Tom Michell’s The Penguin Lessons is. It often becomes tempting to dismiss the whole “get this item just in time for Christmas” marketing gimmick—and it’s usually a very good idea to ignore the not-so-subtle attempts to shoe-horn every item for sale into the festivities. However, with this book, Michell has created a touching narrative that will soften the most hardened of hearts.
Michell’s book focuses on a period of time in the 1970s where he moved to Argentina—ostensibly to teach at a prestigious boarding school, but really as an excuse to travel South America and succumb to his adventurous 23-year-old spirit. What he probably doesn’t expect to find when wandering the Uruguayan coast one afternoon, however, is the corpses of hundreds of Magellan penguins—dead as a result of an oil spill. One lone penguin hangs on to life by the slenderest of threads, alive but clearly not in good shape. Michell, in a move that today sounds like it could come straight out of the script for a particularly zany Hollywood movie, decides to rescue the penguin, scrub him up in his friends’ apartment, and bring him back to Argentina.
So begins a friendship that touches many lives and gives rise to many a joyous moment back on campus. Juan Salvador—for that is the name Michell has given him—is a delight to all the boys at the college, and flourishes in his new environment. Our author struggles constantly with the debate about what is best for the penguin’s well-being, but in the end his obvious contentment is enough to make Michell decide that the college room—and in particular the terrace where the penguin basks in the sunlight and eats his fish—should be Juan Salvador’s home.
Michell really manages to pack a poignant tale—centred on the joy and happiness that Juan Salvador brings to people’s lives—into just over 200 hundred pages, but he does not leave it there. The descriptions of Argentine politics, economics, rugby—even the scenery he finds on his coastal wanderings—really bring the narrative to life, and you almost feel as if it’s you the reader that has taken this wild—but ultimately hugely rewarding—expedition, a long way now from home.
One particular highlight of The Penguin Lessons is the story of Juan Salvador’s relationship with one of the boys from the college—a section that explores the idea that sometimes it takes something a little bit special and different, to find out the truth behind a mask; to learn what really motivates a person. The idea that animals can unlock something inside of us through communication, and that they understood more than we could ever expressed, is something worth considering. Michell is absolutely right in his assertion that as technology develops we will find a way to break down the barriers between human and animal communication.
In essence, Michell’s The Penguin Lessons is a heart-warming and thoroughly entertaining read. There is humour—both light-hearted and laugh-out-loud worthy, often at the same time—but also inevitable sadness. This is a wonderful little story, and it has to be said: it’s a perfect little Christmas treat.