Book review

Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo (1985)

The foundation stone of this story is the curse which came to the people of Samson, one of the Isles of Scilly, and how two young children and the supposedly mad Birdman of Bryher manage to redeem the curse some thirty years later.

But this really is not a dark and sinister story about evil curses. Rather it is a gentle story about friendship and trust, and it all comes about in the very beginning because of a pair of aggressive swans. The breeding pair drive Gracie and her close friend Daniel away from their favourite local pond where they sail their model ships. In their search for some safe flat water the children find themselves playing on the forbidden Rushy Beach. Forbidden because this is the domain of the mad Birdman of Bryher:

He was more like an owl, a flitting creature of the dark, the dawn and the dusk. He would be seen outside only rarely in the daylight, perhaps out in his rowing boat around the island or sitting high on his cart; and even in the hottest summers he would always wear a black cape over his shoulders and a pointed black sou'wester on his head. From a distance you could hear him talking loudly to himself in a strange, unearthly monotone. Maybe it was not to himself that he talked but to the kittiwake that sat always on his shoulder or to the blackjack donkey that pulled his cart wherever he went, or maybe it was to the great woolly dog with the greying muzzle that loped along beside him. The Birdman went everywhere barefoot, even in winter, a stooped black figure that lurched as he walked, one step always shorter than the other. And wherever he went he would be surrounded by a flock of screaming seagulls that circled and floated above him, tirelessly vigilant, almost as if they were protecting him. He rarely spoke to anyone, indeed he scarcely even looked at anyone.

He sounds very intimidating, doesn't he, but gradually, starting with messages written in the sand with seashells, the children form a firm, but secret, friendship with the Birdman.

This is 1914 though and Gracie's father joins the Navy. When the message is received that he is missing presumed lost at sea she blames herself for bringing the curse of Samson down on her father. That is because she and Daniel inadvertently lost themselves in the fog while out fishing and passed a cold and thirsty night on the cursed and abandoned island of Samson. Only with the help of the Birdman can Gracie and Daniel fully understand the Samson curse and spot their opportunity to bring it to an end. But when the moment comes, they have to act quickly and they need the help of all the islanders. Can they persuade the people to overcome their distrust of the mad Birdman and listen to what he has to say? See how they do it ...

I always enjoy books written in the first person because I feel so closely involved with the narrator as though I am having a special personal storytelling. My only reservation with this book is the final fate of the Birdman himself which seems a little unnecessary and disconnected. See what you think.

What can I read next?

I love the voice of Michael Morpurgo. He tells his stories so quietly and simply. And fortunately for all of us, he has written very many books. He writes stories at different levels for different readers, so check that the book you have chosen is right for you before you start. You might like to look at:

Michael Morpurgo's stories often hint remotely at a kind of magic, and that makes me think of David Almond. He writes mysterious stories that are almost poetry, but aimed at slightly older readers than Michael Morpurgo, perhaps:

And perhaps you might be interested in this classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

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