Friday, January 10, 2020
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
I started reading Nevil Shute last year because I intended to review one of his books for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I started with one of his most famous works, A Town Like Alice. Though I never got around to writing a post, I enjoyed it so much I read two more of his books before the end of the year. Though he's most famous now for his books set in Australia, Shute started writing in the 1920s, and more than half his novels were written before he moved there in 1950.
Published in 1942, Pied Piper is set in 1940. It begins a framing device: an anonymous narrator meets an elderly man one night after dining in his London club. They are forced to stay during an air raid, and the older man relates his tale of a recent escape from the Nazi invasion of France, just after the fall of Dunkirk.
The protagonist, John Howard, is a widower, bereft after the loss of his only son, an RAF pilot. He's unable to help with the war effort due to health issues, and in early spring of 1940, has cabin fever and decides to go on a fishing holiday in France, in a small town near the Swiss border, near the Jura mountains. Howard had hoped to have no reminders of the war, which seems very far away, and is mildly annoyed to find British tourists staying at the same small hotel. Young Sheila and Robbie are on holiday but normally attend school in Geneva, where their father is working for the League of Nations. Gradually Howard befriends the family, and after the fall of Dunkirk, decides it's best to go home to England. The children's parents are alarmed at the speed of the invasion, and beg him to take the children with him back to England, to stay with relatives.
It seems like a relatively easy task to take a train to Dijon and then to Paris, but Howard underestimates the difficulty of traveling with children, and the rapid escalation of the invasion. The younger child, Sheila, becomes feverish and the party is forced to spend the night in a hotel. Trains stop running, luggage goes missing, and Howard is forced to keep finding alternate routes to get back to England. Meanwhile, thousands of people are attempting to evacuate before the arrival of the Nazis. The small party begins to increase as more and more children join Howard and he attempts to get them all to safety.
I really liked this book. I do love reading about the lives of ordinary people during the wars. This is also a survival story, which I always enjoy. I liked how Howard comes out of his shell when he makes it his life's purpose to protect the children. I also enjoyed following their route across France as they zigzag toward safety to try and elude the Nazis. There were also some good side characters that helped them. It's always nice to read about the kindness of strangers.
This was also a really fast read, I think I finished the whole thing in one day. It also reminded me a bit of A Town Called Alice, which also includes wartime refugees on a march, trying to survive, though that one is set in Malaya. I definitely want to read more works by Shute, though some of them are a bit obscure. They're a bit tricky to find in libraries but there are many inexpensive used copies from online retailers.
I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics challenge.