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Flight of the Grey Goose

Novel (178 pages, 66,565 words)

UK first 1973
First edition
Educational edition 1974
School edition
Pan paperback 1974
Pan paperback
Farrago edition, 2021
Puffin paperback 1978
Puffin paperback
German translation

The Book

Samuel Miles, known as "Smiler", aged 15, has been falsely convicted of stealing an old lady's handbag, and is on the run from an approved school (young offenders' prison). He is determined to stay free until his father, a ship's cook, returns from his current voyage in four months time and can help to clear him of the theft charge. He hitches a ride with a lorry-driver, who gives him a stray dog which he calls Bacon. Smiler then meets a tramp called "The Professor" who helps him ride a goods train but steals most of his money.

The train takes him to Fort William, where he comes across a remote loch, rescues a goose with a broken wing and is taken by a farmer's daughter, Laura Mackay, to a castle on an island occupied by "the Laird", Sir Alec Elphinstone. The Laird takes him on to do odd jobs in the informal wildlife sanctuary he has created, and tells him some of his family history about an ancestor who fought with Bonny Prince Charlie.

The Laird visits London to see his newborn grandchild, leaving Smiler in charge of the castle. Smiler explores a cave with an underwater entrance and finds missing family jewels. During a spell of bad weather some London thieves come to the island. They force Smiler to open the safe by threatening to shoot various animals he has been caring for. Will they get away with the loot?

Publishing History

This is the second part of the Smiler trilogy of books for children. Like its predecessor, The Runaways, it stayed in print a long time and was widely read in schools, either as a class text or in the school library. It was published by Heinemann in 1973, with an American edition from William Morrow in the same year, and was included in the one-volume reprint, Smiler, in 1975. There was a Pan editon in 1974, and a Puffin edition, uniform with the other books in the series, in 1978. A new edition has been released by Farrago Books in 2021 and an audiobook read by John Higgins will follow soon.

It is dedicated to Fiona Bird, who was to become Canning's step-daughter, and it is presumably in acknowledgement of Fiona and her brother Duncan's Scottish ancestry that he sets the book in Scotland. It is almost the only use he ever makes of Scottish locations.

This book is much more of a romantic fantasy than its predecessor. The finding of buried treasure and the foiling of the thieves are rather conventional plot features, while the Merlinesque "Laird", whose empathy with nature means that wild birds perch on his shoulders and red squirrels and grass snakes inhabit his pockets, is a somewhat implausible figure. The Scottish elements have a Brigadoon flavour, which has not done the book any harm in the USA. But the wildlife elements are an endearing feature, and the account of Smiler learning to milk a cow is enchanting. In the end we are not unhappy that he has to go on the run again and we will enjoy more of his adventures in The Painted Tent.