Pied Piper – Nevil Shute

Sometimes, when an author or book is recommended, one thinks I’m sure it’s good, but not today, thanks. Sometimes, you need to be in the right mood or frame of mind.

Ever since I first started moving way from Enid Blyton, and onto more grown-up books aged about 9 or 10, my mum has been trying to get me to read Nevil Shute, especially his novel entitled A Town Like Alice. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I resisted. Maybe it was simply because it was being recommended. So I never read A Town Like Alice, or any other of the many Shute novels my mother owns.

And then, about a month ago, as I was waiting for Mark by a bookcase of charity books in his place of work, I happened upon a Nevil Shute which I picked up as something to read while I waited. It was the only vaguely interesting book on the shelves.

Pied Piper is the story of a retired Englishman’s journey through France from the Alps, with two children in tow, in the summer of 1940. By the time Mark was done, I was a chapter in, and hooked.

Our gentleman, one John Howard, with an absence of anything to do in this war and with faith in the Maginot line, decides to go on a fishing trip to the Jura in April 1940, intending to spend the summer there. By the end of May, with news of the Dunkirk evacuation filtering to his mountain-top inn, he changes his plans, considering his place in war to be in his home-country.

He is persuaded by fellow-visitors to the inn to escort a little boy and girl, whose father works for the League of Nations in Geneva, back to England. They set off in the first week of June 1940, expecting to be travelling for little more than two days. But life, never that simple, is complicated by the little girl contracting some fever on the first leg of the journey, and requiring bed-rest for a few days when they reach Dijon.

Those few days spent in Dijon were enough, in mid-June 1940, to completely disrupt the ordered passage through France to the Channel and thence to England. Further hindrances come in the form of several other waifs and strays, and with the German regulations put in force, throughout France in general and along the coast in particular.

Pied Piper, for all the simplicity of the plot, is a beautifully written story; a reminder that a good tale need not be complicated. And a reminder that even in times of war, good people still exist, even if they are fictional. Pied Piper, according to my 1960s edition, was first published in 1942, when WWII was still going on. Perhaps it was propaganda for morale, perhaps it was a story Shute heard (Wikipedia throws no light on the matter), but still, it is a story in which the patience and goodness of one old man fights his way through enemy territory to save unrelated children.

It is a heartwarming story, something which is quite hard to find in these days of post-apocalyptic, gritty fantasy, and psychological thrillers. I regret not reading the Shute books when I lived at home, although this does mean that I have another author to collect, and I do, heartily, recommend Pied Piper.

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