Book Review: The Little Prince

The Little Prince Book Cover

Book Name: The Little Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
First Published: 1943

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry, more popularly known as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was born to an aristocratic family in Lyon on June 29, 1900. He was the third of five children of the Countess Marie de Fonscolombe and Count Jean de Saint Exupéry. His father died of a stroke in Lyon’s La Foux train station before his son’s fourth birthday. This left the family in poverty.

When he was 17, his younger brother succumbed to rheumatic fever. Saint-Exupéry remained at home to care for his brother Francois, but it was to no avail and his brother died. This left Saint-Exupéry in the role of being the sole “man” of the family and caused him to become the protector to his mother and sisters. Later he would write of his brother’s death and how his brother“…remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a young tree falls”, this imagery would much later serve to create the climactic ending of The Little Prince.

Saint-Exupéry had difficulty in deciding on a career path. He failed his final exams at the Naval Academy and then studied architecture at École des Beaux-Arts for over a year, but did not graduate. He fell into a habit of accepting odd jobs until he began military service in the French Army during 1921. After taking private flying lessons, he was transferred to the French Air Force. He received his pilot’s wings in Casablanca, Morocco and posted to the 34th Aviation Regiment at Le Bourget on the edge of Paris. It was then that he had several aircraft crashes, endangering his life.

Saint-Exupéry was engaged to future novelist Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin at the time and due to pressure from her family, he quit the air force and flying to take an office job in the city. He was not happy in this choice and in time the young couple broke off their engagement. He returned to working odd jobs and had little success over the next few years.

He began flying again in 1926 and became an airmail pilot. His routes included Africa, Europe, and South America. He became one of the pioneers of international postal flight, in the days when airplanes had few instruments and pilots flew by the seat of their pants. He worked for Aéropostale and became the airline stopover manager for the Cape Juby airfield South Morocco, in the Sahara desert. His duties included negotiating the safe release of downed pilots taken hostage by enemy Moors, a task which earned him his first Légion d’honneur from the French Government.

In 1929, Saint-Exupéry was transferred to Argentina, where he became director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline. He surveyed new air routes across South America, negotiated agreements, and even occasionally flew the mail as well as search missions looking for lost fliers. This period of his life is documented in the IMAX film Wings of Courage by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

In 1931, his first book Vol de nuit (Night Flight) was published and gained widespread acclaim. He also married the Salvadoran artist and writer Consuelo Suncin that same year. She was a twice-widowed Salvadoran writer and artist. A true bohemian spirit with a “viper’s tongue”. While Saint-Exupéry was bemused by his diminutive wife, their marriage was a stormy one. She was both his muse and the source of much personal angst. Saint-Exupery would engage in many affairs during their marriage, usually with a Frenchwoman Hélène de Vogüé. She would become the author’s literary executrix after his death.

On December 30, 1935, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic-navigator André Prévot crashed in the Sahara desert. They had been attempting to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Spain race and win a 150,000 francs prize. They survived the crash and wandered the desert for four days, with little water or supplies. Both saw mirages and experienced hallucinations and came close to death. They were found by a passing Bedouin who saved their lives. The near brush with death would figure prominently in Saint-Exupéry’s 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars. Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella The Little Prince, which begins with a pilot being marooned in the desert, is also a reference to this experience.

Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the French Armée de l’Air to serve his country. After the armistice with Germany, he went into exile in 1940 to New York City. He had the intention to convince the United States to enter the war against Nazi Germany. It was there that he belatedly received his National Book Award for Wind, Sand and Stars, won the previous year while he was fighting the Germans. His wife Consuelo followed him to New York a few months later.

It was soon after Saint-Exupéry’s arrival in the United States that the author adopted the hyphen within his surname. It was due to his annoyance of Americans addressing him as “Mr. Exupéry”. It was also during this period that he authored Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras), which earned widespread acclaim, and Lettre à un otage (Letter to a Hostage), dedicated to the 40 million French living under Nazi oppression.

The French wife of one of his publishers helped persuade Saint-Exupéry to produce a children’s book, hoping to calm the pilot’s nerves and to compete with the new series of Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated The Little Prince to answer this call. It would be first published in early 1943 in both English and French in the United States, and would but only later appear in his native homeland posthumously after the liberation of France. This novella has been translated into more than 250 languages and dialects and is one of the top three selling books in the world.

In 1943, Saint-Exupéry rejoined with the Free French Air Force. He was eight years over the age limit for being a pilot and his previous crash injuries was causing his body pain and limited mobility. His last assigned reconnaissance mission was to observe German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley before the Allied invasion of southern France. He took off in an unarmed P-38 from an airbase on Corsica. To the great alarm of the squadron members who revered him, he vanished into that long night without a trace.

“A saint in short, true to his name, flying up here at the right hand of God. The good Saint-Ex! And he was not the only one. He was merely the one who put it into words most beautifully and anointed himself before the altar of the right stuff.” -Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

When the narrator of The Little Prince was a young boy, he drew an elephant inside a boa constrictor. However, all adults who saw the picture thought it was a hat. He tried to explain but was told to take up a more useful hobby instead of drawing. The adults’ lack of creativity frustrated him and made him stop drawing.

He is now a pilot but his plane has crashed in the Sahara desert. There, he encounters a golden-haired young boy he calls “the little prince”. The prince asks him to draw a sheep and when he shows him his childhood drawing, the boy correctly guesses what it is. The narrator fails to draw a nice-looking sheep then out of frustration just draws a box and says that the sheep is inside the box. Much to his surprise, the prince tells him that the drawing is exactly what he wanted.

The two are stranded in the desert for eight days. The pilot tries to repair the plane and the boy tells him his life story. The prince describes his life on his planet, which is an asteroid as big as a house. The planet has three tiny volcanoes and several kinds of plants and the boy wanted a sheep to eat the unwanted plants. He also loves a mysterious rose growing on his planet and is on a journey to see what else is in the universe.

The boy has been to six other asteroids and has met a foolish adult inhabiting each of them. One of the inhabitants, a geographer who only concentrated on theories but never explored the area he was mapping, told him that the planet Earth would be a good place to visit.

The prince landed on Earth and when he saw rose bushes, he was sad to learn that his rose was not unique. He doubted himself and felt bad about his small planet. However, he met a fox who convinced him that his rose was special because of his love for it. He and the fox eventually separated and the prince met a railway switchman who told him how adults were oblivious and never satisfied with their situation.

Back to the present time, the very thirsty narrator and the prince find a well. The pilot later sees the prince talking to a poisonous snake who has previously claimed to be able to return the prince to his home planet. The prince wants to go home.

“People have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

While The Little Prince is considered a children’s book, there is much commentary about living as an adult and seeing beyond what our eyes tell us. It is a book about love, respect, and home. Much of the author’s life went into this small volume that has influenced billions of children to this very day. It is a book that should be part of every child’s bookcase.