When Tom Michell takes a teaching job in Argentina, he hopes to see the world, despite reservations from his friends and family back home. Yet whilst on his travels he comes across an oil-slicked beach in Uruguay, and a swathe of dead penguins. In amongst the horror is one lone, living penguin. Against all common sense he takes the bird back to his friends’ luxury apartment. Once clean, the little bird refuses to leave him, leaving Tom with an unlikely pet. One he must now smuggle across the border and into school…
The Penguin Lessons is a mix of memoir and travel writing, with an adorable penguin at the centre. I was struck by the apparent intelligence of Juan Salvador. When Tom first rescues the penguin, he struggles as you would expect a wild animal to. Yet as soon as Tom starts cleaning the oil off his feathers, he settles down and overs his wings as if helping. It’s like he was aware of what Tom was doing. And the rest of the book has plenty more examples of this potential awareness, even if Tom himself admits to anthropomorphising him at times.
I was hoping against hope that the penguin would survive because, as of that instant, he had a name, and with his name came the beginning of a bond that would last a lifetime.
If you’re expecting a book just filled with cute penguin anecdotes, you may be disappointed. However I enjoyed the travel writing aspects as well. Set during the 1970s in Argentina, Tom is working at a private school where he lives with Juan Salvador. In this time, there is a lot of political upheaval in the country and his time there touches a little on it. It was also fascinating to read about the hyperinflation. When he first arrived he was given money and told to spend it all at once on things to trade as the money could become worthless overnight.
Tom also spends some time travelling around South America, which was how he first came across Juan Salvador in Uruguay. He details some time spent living with gauchos, Argentine cowboys, and a trip down to a penguin colony. He also learns how it’s best not to mention the Falklands if you’re English…
The book contains cute illustrations by Neil Baker between chapters. In the absense of any remaining photographic evidence, I like to think they capture the penguin’s personality.
I learnt a little about penguins that I didn’t know, but probably more about Argentina. Overall it’s a charming little book, even if Tom does come across as a certain generation of posh, Englishman now and then. Yet he did seem to show genuine affection towards the cleaning staff and some of the less fortunate boys at the school.
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Book Source: Purchased
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