A wartime comfort read…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.
On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.
Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.
This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.
I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.