Books that Built Us: ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I don’t really remember much after stepping on the tarmac in that cold Jan. winter. I remember finding it odd that you have to take a bus back to the airport terminal in Germany instead of strolling down the jet bridge, but that’s about it. There were no impressive details of settling into a new home, going to a new school and meeting new people in a completely new country.
What I do remember — stupidly, vividly — was the moment my parents dropped the earth-shattering news right on top of me. To set the scene, I was in the fourth grade, living in the quaint little upstate South Carolina town of Anderson. I was by all means a normal boy (LEGOs, books, screwing around with friends outside, etc.), yet in that normality lay a blissful sense of childlike ignorance. For the first nine years of my life I marched to the tune of my family’s drum, living life without questioning.
But completely uprooting and relocating to a whole new continent when you have hardly been outside of state borders for your entire life will make anyone question, even a kid. So, when I was told my family would be moving to Germany, I naturally had questions. Only I had no idea how to answer them, so I opted to flip on Cartoon Network, holding back tears as I refused to acknowledge my new reality.
Settling into this new home wasn’t hard (being a “new kid” gives you a certain mysterious, alien-like aura that allures fourth graders). The hard part was making it feel like home. No number of friends I made and adventures I went on could shake the feeling that I was living in a European spinoff of my life in South Carolina. However, there was one book hidden right under my nose which could’ve made me realize the spinoff is sometimes as good as the original: Saint-Exupéry’s magnificent novella “The Little Prince.”
On the surface, “The Little Prince” is a beautifully illustrated and imaginative children’s story. The protagonist is a downed aviator stranded in the Sahara who chances upon the Prince wandering the desert. As he fixes his plane, he gets lost in the tales of the Prince, his home planet and his interstellar journey. The essence of the novella, though, is much more poignant than any child should be able to understand. It is the sincerely short tale of a lost soul; a child who quests to find understanding in a world of confusing, boring and vain grown-ups.
“The Little Prince” does not get caught up in wistful adult tragedy but instead seeks childhood certainties and inner peace. Saint-Exupéry dedicates the book to a longtime grown-up friend of his while looking to his child readers for forgiveness because “All grown-ups were once children,” adding, “but only few of them remember it.” The book is targeted more at the parent reading than the child sitting on their lap — on one page, it’s a critique on materialism before turning to a meditation on the nature of human relationships, all expressed via delicately simple prose. Each word is carefully chosen — its most memorable aphorism, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye,” was rewritten about 15 times before Saint-Exupéry was finally able to settle on the most to-the-point yet eloquent way of writing what he needed to write.
“The Little Prince” eluded me growing up. My mom read it to me here and there when I was young, and soon after moving to Germany we read it as a class at my new international school. Even then I had no real memories of it, other than a fleeting mental image of the famous drawing of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. It wasn’t until recently rediscovering the novella did it have a profound impact on me. Now almost a decade older and far removed from the days when my mom and I would take a day trip to comb through children’s literature at a Books-A-Million, I went and got a copy of “The Little Prince,” partly due to the off-hand recommendation of a friend who cherished it. After finally reading it by myself for the first time, I felt like a child again, in no small part due to the happy tears streaming down my face.
Even when I moved back to the United States, I never felt like I had a proper home. “Home” is a word I associate with a childlike nostalgia for a predictable comfort and warmth that I unfortunately have never been quite able to replicate post-moving. For me, home is not where my family is or where my friends are, it’s where my heart lies; it’s a feeling of belonging. Houses are only interchangeable background sets for me at this point. Often, I’ll find myself wandering around my current abode half-jokingly dreading the day when I’ll have to yet again help my parents pack up the sheer amount of stuff that has nestled itself in the corners.
The titular prince’s home is a small asteroid, small enough so one “would watch the twilight whenever (they) wanted to” simply by scooting their chair. It is populated by three volcanoes — two active and one extinct — and a rose he comes to love. In embarking on an astronomical journey to seek what the universe has to offer, he has to leave his home behind to discover what home truly means to him. In a piece of ageless wisdom, the Prince comforts the aviator when it comes time for the two to depart:
“You’ll have stars like nobody else … When you look up at the sky at night, since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!”
If only I knew the stars were laughing with me when I stared out of my skylight at the glimpse of the dark German landscape. Those same stars were laughing with my friends back in South Carolina, the people that I thought I had already said goodbye to for the last time. Reading “The Little Prince” again taught me that even though we may physically lose people and things as we travel down our journey of life, they remain part of us forever. Our past experiences link us to what we have left behind, enabling us to build a place that feels like home whenever and wherever we feel is right. While the little Prince of the book ultimately returns to his original home, for me it will not be the same. All I know is whenever I find my true home, there will always be a spot on my bookshelf for Saint-Exupéry’s little masterpiece.