As a diversion away from my usual book challenges, my friend Gary asked me if I had ever read Avalanche! by An Rutgers van der Loeff, a children’s book written in 1954, which won the Best Children’s Book of the Year award in the Netherlands that year. Neither the book nor the writer triggered any childhood memories, so Gary sent me a copy to read and ruminate about! And I have to say, as soon as I opened up the package and saw the cover of the book, I did remember it being in my junior school library… but I’m pretty sure I never read it, nor any others by Rutgers van der Loeff.
The blurb on the Penguin edition reads: “Avalanche! is an unusually fine story about a party of boys and girls from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village who went to a high Alpine hut to ski. Their adventures began as avalanche after avalanche came down, slowly at first, then spreading and gaining speed […] It is a grand book, infectious in its feeling of courage in adventure, and is warmly recommended for boys and girls of 11 or 12 and upwards.”
An Rutgers van der Loeff wrote over fifty books between 1941 and 1985, but only nine were translated into English. Her most successful book – and one of her earliest – was De Kinderkaravaan, translated as Children on the Oregon Trail. Avalanche! was first published in the UK in 1957; its original Dutch title, Lawines razen, translates literally as Avalanche’s Rage. It was translated into English by Dora Pound, and illustrated by Alie Evers; and I can find out very little about either of them.
Beware – Spoilers!
The Story. The book is a bittersweet tale of a Swiss boy, Werner, son of the village schoolteacher, who accompanies his father on a rescue mission to lead some boys who have been staying in a mountain hut safely back into the village in the face of oncoming avalanches. These are boys from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen (which really existed – and indeed, still does.) Werner and his father successfully lead the boys back to safety, although one, little Paolo, a lively Italian boy, is caught out by a small avalanche and trapped, as his inexperience prevents him from escaping it. Werner keeps hold of Paolo’s hand whilst trapped, effectively making both of them at serious risk of death. But another Italian boy, Giuseppe, finds them, and with them both safely rescued, Paolo now looks on Werner as his best friend and life-saver.
The rest of the book traces Werner and Paolo’s friendship through further avalanche incidents, the uncertainty of whether Werner’s parents have survived a massive snowfall on their house, the evacuation from the village, first to Glarmatt then to Brachen, the appearance of a new refugee from an avalanche, Klaus, and the furious digging to find his parents and his sister. When the imminent danger is over, the boys return to their Children’s Village, with the promise that Werner will visit them; he keeps his promise, but there are more surprises in store right at the end.
The Writing Style. Rutgers van der Loeff has a lively and exciting writing style, that can rush ahead with itself when she’s thrilled with her own story-telling, and then pauses more thoughtfully as she delves deeper into her characters, their thoughts and their motives. It may be a children’s story, but she never shies away from the harshness of life, looking tragedy full in the face at times. There’s no room for sentiment at the sight of an avalanche; the snow may be pure and white, but she describes it simply as “white death”. There’s nothing romanticised or sweetened for a child readership. And an avalanche can start so easily – just the noise of a child’s tantrum is all it takes. “Even a shout can do it. The silliest trifle can suddenly loosen the treacherously piled mass of snow and start it roaring down the slope in a cloud of dust, sweeping away everything in its path and crashing down to the valley.” The harshness of life is everywhere in this book. When Paolo suffers a fit of uncontrollable crying, through stress, cold and grief, Hans Peter, the Austrian assistant, firmly slaps him in the face to make him stop – much to the disapproval of Mr Hutamäki, the Finnish teacher and leader of the expedition.
Elsewhere, the narrator tells the truth about the avalanche’s victims plainly and factually. “No dead bodies had been recovered. There were thirteen people injured, two of them seriously. Five were still missing. These were the three Altschwanks and Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli.” When they ask a medical orderly how Klaus’s sister, Marie, is, he replies “It’s not certain yet that she’s dead”, lacking any empathy with the plight of the potentially bereaved. Not known for his sensitivity, Hans Peter doesn’t hold back from delivering the news: “Marie’s alive, but they don’t know if she’ll pull through […] and they’ve found the parents, they were both dead […] and Klaus is very ill. He’s delirious.”
It’s not only death that Rutgers van der Loeff addresses in a forthright and brutal manner. It can be anything. For instance, Werner is apprenticed to Regli, the carpenter, whom she describes as “a good carpenter but he had a slut of a wife and was a bit short-tempered at times.” That word (slut) has always had a double meaning of both being slovenly and sexually promiscuous; we’re not quite sure what she’s getting at here but it’s a tough word to use in the context of a children’s book. There are, however, also some nice lighter comic moments, such as the appearance of the ticket collector on the train, who “moved on, handing out cheery remarks like pills”.
But I think where Rutgers van der Loeff succeeds most is in conveying the double-edged sword of the snowy environment. “And then it happened. In the middle of the night. Just below the top of the Kühelihorn a great mass of snow broke loose with a crash like an explosion.” And in an instant, the village is deluged by snow. “Man can build snow-breaks, he can put up wedge-shaped barriers at threatened points, he can dig trenches and plant trees, but once or twice in a century man is beaten.” Towards the end of the book, Werner takes time to think and reflect on everything that had happened. “It was all so improbable: the terrors of the last few days, the strain of this strange night. None of it seemed to fit the deceptive loveliness of the white peaks against the blue sky and the sunny peace of this upland valley. Here death walked abroad, and the white terror still lurked.”
It’s interesting that Rutgers van der Loeff’s main characters are all male – the few females involved have very peripheral roles and only two – Aunt Augusta and Tishoo – have anything approaching a strongly written character. All the plot is driven by the male characters, primarily the boys; and I would wonder if today this book would have much to appeal to a young female readership. I’ve not read any of her other books, so I don’t know if this is typical of her output.
The villagers. The book starts with an introduction to the small, traditional Swiss village of Urteli, Werner’s home, and we meet some of the locals and tradesmen, and get to know their characteristics and relationships. Werner’s parents, for example; the brave and decisive Hans, who never questions whether going to rescue the boys in the mountain hut is too risky, and the reticent and timid Maria Altschwank, desperate for him not to go, and not to take Werner with him, but knowing that it was pointless to argue. Then there’s the baker, whose first thought when his village is under threat is to look after his own and not have a care about anyone else. He resents providing bread for foreign boys: “they’re foreign brats! I’ve never heard so much queer babble in all my life […] in times of shortage I bake for my own people first”. That’s an attitude which, almost 70 years later, you’d still find today.
Little vignettes criss-cross throughout the book, giving an intimation of happy or dissatisfied lives in their tiny community. We meet the cantankerous Aunt Augusta, who softens when she’s faced with hardship; never ceasing to be independent, and determined to look after Maria once she’s out of medical danger – and later realising the error of her ways. We meet Mr Taureggi, who generously offers his cowshed for the boys to take shelter, and allows his house to become a first aid centre. There’s Old John, the road-mender, wise but quirky, fit beyond his years, devoted to his wife. Mrs Rähmi, with her perpetually crying baby; Finetti, the butcher and sausage-maker, quietly hoping for a little bit of disaster in the hope of seeing his son, stationed locally; Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli, who own the café, and their son Bartel, confident and go-getting. All human life is here; which makes it all the more poignant when the village has been besieged by an abnormal amount of snow. From the perspective of today’s multi-media, Internet-driven age, it’s hard to imagine quite how isolated the village is – and that the mountain hut has absolutely no connection to the outside world. No telephone, no wireless, nothing.
Pestalozzi. Alongside the villagers we also meet the group of boys who have been sheltering in the hut, and whom Altschwank and Werner rescue. Because the Pestalozzi Children’s Village houses children and orphans from all over the continent, Rutgers van der Loeff reveals fascinating culture clashes between the locals – some of whom have rarely been out of their village – and the foreigners, with their different ways of looking at things and behaving. Antti, for example, shows typical Finnish quiet and reserve, whilst Greek Nikolai is gregarious and talkative. When Werner visits the home at the end of the book he meets another Greek child, Sylvia, nicknamed Tishoo because she can’t stop sneezing, and she has all the confidence and assertiveness you would expect from someone who has thrived from their education and upbringing, despite the odds. But none is livelier and more unpredictable than little Paolo.
Werner and Paolo. They say that opposites attract, and there could be no greater disparity between the boys than that between Werner and Paolo. Werner is a serious boy, one who takes on everyone’s problems for himself, respects his elders and is desperate to do the right thing. Paolo, on the other hand, is a flighty type, who can’t conceal his emotions, cries at the slightest provocation, sings at inappropriate moments and is cheeky with adults. Paolo thrives on adventures, both real and imaginary, making up stories to entertain the others, weaving imaginary events in with reality, so that you can’t tell where one ends and one begins. Werner, however, keeps his head below the parapet, is rooted in reality and can be trusted to provide practical solutions. As such, he decides he needs to stay close to Paolo in the rescue mission, because the latter needs help more than any of the others. That’s not to say that Werner feels no sense of emotion; when he walks back with his father, he is overwhelmed by a sense of security and safety that his father’s presence gives him. No wonder he’s struck dumb when he fears his parents have died.
Fate throws Werner and Paolo together when Werner catches the boy’s hand emerging from the avalanche of snow that has trapped him. For seven minutes they lay trapped under the snow until the Italian boy Giuseppe finds them. Paolo is very stressed from the experience and cannot stop crying. Convinced Werner saved his life, Paolo cannot bear to be separated from him. This emotional challenge catches Werner on the raw and he finds it difficult to know how to react.
“He was attracted to the boy, though he did not know why” adds the narrative, in a manner that suggests there might be some kind of homosexual awakening in Werner. I’m still undecided about that; that might be a very 21st century interpretation! It’s true that the two try to spend time together whenever it is possible. At one point, when Werner is recovering from being trapped by the avalanche from the Kühelihorn, dazed and anxious about his parents, “Paolo sat on the floor by the camp bed and began to stroke his hand softly, as one might stroke a cat. Werner said nothing, but he did not pull his hand away.” Another time, “Paolo was the only one who had been lucky enough to drop off to sleep. He lay like a little child with his head against Werner’s shoulder.” Near the end of the book Paolo finally tells Werner how old he is, despite the latter’s asking so many times. He’s 14 and 3 months, so not at all the little child that he might otherwise appear to be. There’s definitely a physical connection between the two, almost always initiated by Paolo, whose demonstrative Mediterranean ways must have been something of a shock to the reserved Germanic Werner. There’s a moment when everyone on board the train tells Werner they will always be his friend, when Werner and Paolo exchange a look. “It was a look of understanding, such as old friends exchange”.
What is a man? That’s the question that Werner asks himself as he comes to the end of this crisis. There’s a very strong scene where a soldier takes Werner to task for his irresponsible actions in separating the boys away from the group and digging for Marie and her parents, in isolation from any more experienced rescue workers. The ironic thing is that they do indeed save Marie – but it could have led to a much more dangerous outcome, so the soldier is both furious with Werner and impressed with him. Confused and tired, Werner’s initial response is to laugh. “Werner began to laugh helplessly […] till he suddenly felt he wanted to lean helplessly on the man’s shoulder and laugh and cry at the same time. And that, of course, was one of the things a boy did not do. Paolo might do it, but Paolo never gave the impression of being a real boy. Or was he? He had stayed to go on with the digging, though he admitted being the most frightened of them all. And didn’t that make him the bravest?” Despite Paolo’s girlish behaviour, despite the fact that he likes strip cartoons that feature “great big strong men”, despite flying into rages, despite (or maybe because of) his fury at the others’ insensitivity when they play a game about what they miss and want right now, Paolo’s resilience, spirit, imagination, fierce loyalty and sheer bravery make him more of a man than all the others. To take just one example, only he has the insight to realise that Klaus and Marie should not be split when rehoused. He shows wisdom that Aunt Augusta lacks. “The child is father to the man,” as Wordsworth put it.
To sum up: “Misfortune shakes you awake, and you’ve all had a jolly good shaking up and are wide awake, but it’s only when you’re awake that life becomes quite real, because you’ve learned what it’s worth.” So says Hans Peter, quoting the Head of the Pestalozzi village, summing up what’s happened to all the boys as a consequence of the events of the book. And that’s very much the awakening that Werner is forced to undergo. A study of an unlikely but deep friendship between two very different boys, caused by their being thrown together as a result of life-threatening danger. I enjoyed this book very much; you could never tell which way it was going to end up. I did find the character of Paolo occasionally irritating, and when he and Werner have arguments, I always found that I was on Werner’s side! But it’s a very positive tale, bringing out the best of people under extreme circumstances. If you’ve read this book too, I’d love to know your thoughts about it. And if you’ve read any other books by An Rutgers van der Loeff that you recommend, please drop me a comment below!