Canadian Cycling Magazine

How a manuscript with a monkey evaded capture 80 years ago

- by Melanie Chambers

Three days before the Nazis came into Paris during the Second World War, a couple fled on homemade bicycles with little more than a manuscript. The pages featured what would become Curiousgeo­rge, one of the world’s most beloved children’s book series. It was also their ticket to freedom and survival.

It was June 1940. With many refugees escaping Europe, trains were halted, and cars were scarce. Hans Augusto Rey, who illustrate­d books, found a tandem bike at a local shop in Paris. As the stories go, Margret Rey, who did much of the writing, refused to ride the clunky tandem, so Hans cobbled together spare parts and built two bikes.

At 5:30 a.m. on June 11, the couple began riding south with some clothes, food and a manuscript of Fifi the monkey, the name of the simian character at the time. They cycled 130 km in three days, and then hopped on trains and rode again.

Hans and Margret Rey were both German Jews with Brazilian citizenshi­p. At the border, they attracted the attention of an official. That official found the manuscript with its cute drawings of a monkey. Nothing could be less threatenin­g, so the couple was allowed to continue their journey. They arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, sailed to Rio de Janeiro, then made it to New York. In 1941, Houghton Mifflin published their first book in the U.S. Fifi became known as George, the insatiably curious monkey who always found trouble.

Hans and Margret always insisted that the George books didn’t have a deeper meaning beyond the stories. It’s hard, though, not to see connection­s between the creators and their creation. The first George book recounts the monkey’s arrival in America. Just like the Reys, George didn’t want to leave his home either: the man with the yellow hat kidnapped George from Africa. “I’m not sure if this book could have been written today. It was an earlier time, a sense of animal rights hadn’t emerged yet,” says Dr. Siobhan O’flynn, who teaches in the department of English and drama at the University of Toronto.

But the comparison­s end there. The arrival stories were quite different. “Leaving Europe during that period was quite traumatic for refugees fleeing anti-semitism and threats,” says O’flynn. “George’s experience of arriving in America would have been quite different than the European refugees at that time. He was quite privileged.” George was brought to a home with a bed and new striped pajamas.

If you can draw any parallels between the creators and George, it’s that both were entering the U.S. during a time of possibilit­y and growth: “In the 1950s, it was an aspiration­al decade for America, an era of immigrants arriving and building careers. It was a place where you could make it.” Hans and Margret’s books have sold more than 75 million copies in 15 languages. Hans died in 1977 and Margret died in 1996. In 2021, George will turn 80.

George’s adventures have happy endings, no matter the danger he might find himself in. From a botched paint job to swallowing a bead and going to the hospital, George’s disasters are never permanent. “Part of their delight is that balance is always restored. And despite the traumatic removal from home, it’s dealt with in a light-hearted way. In the first book, there is a kind of magical transforma­tion that happens,” says O’flynn. In the third book, Curious Georger idesab ike, the monkey crashes. But like his creators’ bike ride, everything turns out just fine.

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