51 pages 1 hour read

Hazel Prior

How the Penguins Saved Veronica

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


How The Penguins Saved Veronica (2020) is the second novel by author and harpist Hazel Prior. Prior’s first book draws on her musical interests and is entitled Ellie and the Harpmaker (2019). Her second novel was also released under the title Away with the Penguins (2020) and was read on the BBC Radio 2 Book Club program. Prior followed this title with a sequel featuring the same characters in Call of the Penguins (2021). Her most recent book is Life and Otter Miracles (2023).

This study guide and all its page citations are based on the Berkley 2020 Kindle edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide discuss suicide, victim shaming, and substance use.

Plot Summary

The novel takes place in multiple locations during different time periods. From May to December 2012, the plot unfolds in Scotland and England. The Shetland Islands, Antarctica, form the backdrop for events occurring from December through Feb 2013. The novel concludes in Scotland in March 2013. In addition to this contemporary time period, the central character’s life is described in diaries spanning the period from July 1940 through January 1943.

The story is told using first-person narration from the alternating perspectives of two people: 85-year-old Veronica McCreedy and her 27-year-old grandson Patrick.

The story begins by introducing an 85-year-old woman named Veronica McCreedy. She lives an isolated life on her estate in Scotland and has no living relatives. She is tended to by a housekeeper named Eileen and a gardener but has no other staff. Veronica often thinks about her beauty when younger, and though attempts to keep up appearances, she feels herself aging. While cleaning one day, Eileen comes across a small, locked box in a storage room. Veronica snatches the box away but fears to open it because it contains her diaries and a locket with four strands of hair from her departed loved ones. Battling with herself, Veronica finally stays up all night and reads through her diaries. She once had an assertive temperament and let nothing get in her way. In her old age, Veronica regrets that she has failed to make a positive difference in the world.

One evening, while watching a nature series on television, Veronica learns about various penguin species and how they are being threatened with extinction because of global warming. As the series continues, Veronica becomes enthralled by the penguins and decides that she will leave her money to a research group currently studying the Adélie penguins on Locket Island in the South Shetlands. Almost simultaneously, Veronica embarks on a quest to find out if she has any long-lost relatives and asks Eileen to get the name of an agency that specializes in such things.

While Veronica is making these plans, a young man in Bolton, England, is having a rough time. His name is Patrick, and his girlfriend has just left him without warning. Patrick’s life is directionless, and his family history is tragic. His father abandoned the family, and Patrick’s mother died by suicide when he was only six. He lived in five different foster homes during his youth. Now 27, he works part-time in a bicycle repair shop for his good friend Gavin and does little else except drink and smoke marijuana.

Much to Patrick’s surprise, he receives a letter from Veronica stating that she is his grandmother. They exchange contact information, and the old lady comes to visit him with no advance warning. Patrick is wearing dirty clothes, and his apartment is a wreck. He is also smoking marijuana when Veronica arrives. This hardly creates a good impression. The old woman explains that she had a son while still a teenager who was adopted by a Canadian couple. This son grew up to become involved with Patrick’s mother. He abandoned her when Patrick was still a baby and later died in a mountain climbing accident. Patrick is shocked to learn about this unknown family connection, and he isn’t pleased to have the harsh and judgmental Veronica as his grandparent. She is likewise displeased by directionless grandson. When they part, Veronica is determined to leave her fortune to the penguins rather than Patrick.

Veronica embarks on a trip to Antarctica, where she forms a close attachment to an orphaned penguin chick that she rescues. She also becomes close to the three scientists who form the research team on Locket Island. During her absence, Veronica sends Patrick her youthful diaries, and he becomes enthralled with his grandmother’s early life. She lost her parents during the London blitz of 1940. Shortly afterward, she lost her lover, and their infant son was taken from her and put up for adoption. By the time Patrick finishes Veronica’s sad history, he learns that she is ill in Antarctica and may not survive. Borrowing money for the trip, Patrick rushes to be with her. Veronica recovers, having learned some important life lessons about surviving loss and reviving her capacity to love and trust again. The novel concludes with Veronica subsidizing the penguin operation before returning to Scotland. Patrick remains on Locket Island, having found love and a purpose in life among the penguins.

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