Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, novelist and aviator, had a peculiar talent for crashing planes and walking away from the wreckage.
He did so in the Sahara on the penultimate day of 1935, trying to set a new speed record for the run from Paris to Saigon. Only a chance encounter with a Bedouin saved him. He did so while flying mail planes in South America. He dodged a few bullets while flying reconnaissance against the advancing Nazis at the beginning of World War II then spent time in the United States before returning to Europe, where his luck finally gave out: An engine failed, or perhaps he was shot down, and he crashed into the Mediterranean. His effects were recovered only in 1998, while his remains were never definitively identified.
It was while he was in exile in America that Saint-Exupéry wrote a book that would be published in April 1943, just before he returned to the fighting. It was a curious production that began with an unsurprising image: that of a pilot marooned in the desert, “more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean.”
The pilot has a little food and water enough for a week, and in all events, it’s only the first night of his ordeal when he experiences what he thinks is a hallucination. It turns out to be a golden-haired boy who wears a Napoleonic greatcoat and carries a sword but who otherwise doesn’t have the bearing of a soldier. Instead, the boy asks our downed pilot to draw him a sheep—a task the pilot doesn’t take long to fulfill, since others in his life had spent their time suppressing his talent for putting pen to paper.
It goes on from there, and The Little Prince turns into a pleasant fable about encouragement versus discouragement, about listening patiently to questions that might otherwise turn a grown-up into Jack Torrance. Indeed, in one of its aspects, Saint-Exupéry’s book is a manual for how to talk with children, one guaranteed to have a happier outcome than its polar opposite, Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 film Bad Santa.
Like every good children’s book, The Little Prince is an allegory addressed to those grown-ups. On one page, it pokes holes in the dreams of a capitalist who claims to own the stars simply “because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them”; on another, speaking through the mouth of a fox, Saint-Exupéry, who had seen much of Earth from on high, suggests that we might just want to do a better job of taking care of the planet to which the Little Prince is a casual visitor, if only because “you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Whether addressed to young or old, The Little Prince—its ending, like that of its author, tragic or inspirational, depending on your take—remains a classic of world literature, having just turned 70. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in hoping that Saint-Exupéry survived that last crash. If he did, I ask the same favor our narrator does: “Send me word that he has come back.”
Gregory McNamee is contributing editor to Kirkus Reviews. His most recent book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals.