Twentieth Century Books

Pied Piper

I’ve had a funny sort of week, book-wise. Despite going to the library last weekend, and finding myself three books I haven’t read before and want to, I so far find myself struggling to read them.

Not literally – I haven’t suddenly lost my sight – but I can easily throw them aside. And none of them were particularly long or complicated. One Agatha Raisin, one Hamish Macbeth, and one Mrs Jeffries. All various cosy crime novels. I’ve read MC Beaton before (and I greatly prefer Agatha Raisin to the absolutely ghastly Regency romances) and enjoyed them. But not this week. And nor the Victorian one.

Instead, I’ve been reaching for an old friend: Pied Piper, by Nevile Shute. Published in 1942, it’s the tale of an old man bringing two English children back to England through France in June of 1940.

It’s not a complicated plot – it’s the story of a journey from Alpine France to England while the French government falls to Germany and the British troops flee the continent. It’s a rescue mission, in a way. The two English children are, to all intents and purposes, complete strangers to the old man, who was holidaying in the Jura-region of the Alps. Their parents choose to remain in Switzerland (the father being part of the League of Nations), but want to send the children back to England, to be with their aunt.

Planning to be only a few days on the train back to the coast, old man Howard agrees to take the children, both under ten. But the little girl, all of about 5, is taken ill at the first stop, forcing them to delay at Dijon. When they catch the Paris train, it stops at Joigny. The trains do not go any further north, and Howard must find another way to get his charges to safety.

The relatively gentle pace of the writing does not in any way detract from the seriousness of the situation; at one point the road they’re travelling on is targeted by bombers. Along the way, Howard collects various other children, not all of whom speak English, or even French. Most of the way, they have to walk, through a country fast being overrun by Germans, unknowing of the situation on the North coast of France or how they will cross the Channel.

It’s a beautifully written book, the sort you can later dip in and out of. I highly, highly recommend Pied Piper – I’ll let you know if I recommend Nevile Shute in general when I’ve read a couple more of his books. My mother’s always recommended him, particularly A Town Like Alice.

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