Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

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.

Book 5 of 20

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.

Nevil Shute

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.

Audible UK Link

36 thoughts on “Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

  1. My experience too was that, on the surface, this was a comforting, feel-good read. Your thinking has taken the underlying uncomfortable niggles further than I did at the time, but now I’ve started thinking too (yay for a bit of deeper consideration!) I do agree with all the areas of concern you raise and also with your thoughts about the historical context in which they arose. In the decades since this book was written, we’ve had many instances of the damage that can occur when the importance of children’s connection with their biological families and cultural backgrounds has been disregarded.

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    • It’s often only when I settle down to review a book that I suddenly realise that all kinds of things bothered me about it that I just kind of skimmed over while I was reading it. Maybe I should stop reviewing! 😉 But yes, I think all the stories of recent years about displaced children and the impact on them and their families certainly fed into how uncomfortable that whole aspect made me. I felt that he should at least have told the authorities that he was taking the children and given some kind of contact details in case their relatives came looking for them. And I felt the reasoning behind it was that going to wonderful England or America was such a benefit to “foreign” children that it well outweighed any little problems like them never seeing their families again or being cut off from their culture. And that just didn’t sit right…

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      • Thinking further, this is just what the traditional Pied Piper did, entice children away
        and leave behind grieving families. I don’t have the sense that Shute had that kind of insight in this story though.

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        • That’s an interesting thought. I agree – I don’t think there’s any hint of Shute having that kind of sub-text. Perhaps if he’d written it much later, long after the war was over, that might have made it a rather deeper book…

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  2. Great review – thanks for sharing it! I think I would feel similarly about the book – helping one specific family to move their children back to England is very different from scooping up children who have been separated from their families. Easy to understand why he wrote it like this given the context of the time, as you identify, but that doesn’t stop it from being quite unsettling. I’ve always found the story of the Pied Piper very sinister, so it strikes me as a strange title for him to pick for a novel about a man we are meant to admire!

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    • Yes, I wondered why he called it Pied Piper too – it definitely seems an inappropriate title for the type of book that it turned out to be. On the whole it is quite a pleasant read, but once I started imagining relatives in France desperately searching for these children who had vanished without trace I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and that made it all feel quite uncomfortable. I’m sure I would have felt differently during the general chaos of war, and also because back in those days we still felt that it would be seen as a privilege for foreign children to get the opportunity to live in wonderful Britain or America. I’m not so sure we still feel that way today!

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    • Yes, it definitely felt as if there was a propaganda element to it, although not explicitly. But the clear message was how wonderful the Brits and Americans were and how not so wonderful the Germans and even the French were…

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  3. You make such an interesting point, FictionFan, about the attitudes portrayed in the book. I’ve found that in other wartime books I’ve read, too, and I wonder whether it might have been a case of ‘too close to see clearly,’ if that makes sense. Sometimes, I think it takes a certain amount of distance from a time period to see it more clearly. In any case, I do like Shute’s writing, and sometimes, a feel-good novel isn’t a bad thing…

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    • I’ve noticed that in crime fiction written during the war too, especially in London-set books where I’m fairly sure they helped to create the kind of mythology of plucky London standing up to the Blitz. I say mythology although it was largely true, but it does sometimes feel as if the stories that Londoners told themselves about their own bravery actually helped to create that bravery – a kind of virtuous circle, so to speak. And I think there’s an element of patriotism in a lot of writing during the war, when authors perhaps deliberately left their cynicism to one side for a while.

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  4. I hadn’t considered it that way, but now you’re making me rethink this one. I did enjoy it when I read it though—an ordinary man having to turn into a hero of sorts when circumstances demanded it

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    • I mostly enjoyed it too while I was reading it, but it was one of the children in particular who I felt probably did have relatives quite close by, maybe grandparents or an aunt and cousins, and Howard actually said several times that he would speak to the authorities at the next town that they came to. And then he never did – he just decided to take the child to England and have it sent to America. And I found that I was worried about those grandparents looking for their vanished child, even although I knew they were all fictional! 😂

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  5. I read this a few weeks ago too, as you know, though I seem to have enjoyed it more than you did. I have to admit, I saw Howard as someone who was trying to be kind rather than high-handed and I suppose I assumed the families were unlikely to be traced, but you’ve made me think again now! I know what you mean about it seeming close to propaganda, though, and I think a lot of books written during the war had that feel about them.

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    • As I think I may have said on your review, I think listening to this one made me very aware of the slowness of the story, more than I would have been if I’d actually been reading it. I did enjoy it though, and those little niggles about the fate of the children only really came to the fore when I started to write my review – which quite often happens! Sometimes I’m not so sure that reviewing books is a good thing… 😉 Yes, I think it’s totally understandable that a lot of fiction written during the war has that kind of propaganda feel to it. In fact, I think I’d be disappointed by a writer who was overtly critical of the country while the war was happening – that’s probably better kept till it’s all over.

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    • It is a surprisingly gentle and comforting read, especially considering the setting of France being overrun by the Nazis. He does make reference to some of the horrors of war, but mostly he keeps them off the page, so that really you spend all your time with Howard and the children, who may go through dangerous experiences but nothing really awful happens to them. So it may well be a good one to get you out of a slump!

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  6. My eyebrows raised at the thought of traveling to France on holiday in 1940 and things went downhill from there. I’m currently reading another novel (for my book club) that deals with helping children escape the war, so I don’t think I need to add another to my list. But yay! Another book ticked off your challenge!

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    • Yes, I found the idea of going on holiday to France in 1940 extremely strange! I wonder if people really did. No, I don’t think I would want to read two books on this subject close together. This one was quite enough for me, even if it did manage to keep most of the horrors of the war off the page. The challenge was going really well for the first month or so but it all seems to be falling apart now… 😂

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  7. Wow, I’ve never heard of this book. Even though you say it’s comforting, just the descriptions of children alone and potentially separated from relatives made me anxious! What an interesting book. Yes, it probably was a comfort to those reading during war time.

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    • I think Nevil Shute is probably better known in Britain and Australia than in America. Even over here, though, he’s not as widely read as he once was, although he seems to be getting a bit of a revival around the blogosphere at the moment! This one was quite pleasant, which feels an odd thing to say given its subject matter. But I enjoyed the other couple of books of his that I’ve read previously more than this one.

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  8. Isn’t interesting that a book set in and written during a war can be comforting. I’ve got this book on my shelves and am overdue for a re-read, along with many others by Shute.
    I enjoyed this review very much, also the interesting comments that others have made. I suppose the British readers of the time felt that the children collected along the way were better off in Britain, too and didn’t question the plot. Was the orphaned children not ‘caring’ an example of a stiff upper lip?

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    • Hmm, perhaps, though I’d have said that in general the “stiff upper lip” is reserved for older kids and adults. But when you think of the things that Enid Blyton’s children did without crying, then maybe… interesting! Yes, there’s a definite whiff of good old British superiority – that anyone would be glad of the chance to come here – which still exists! Seems odd though, at a time when our cities were being bombed and our own children were being packed away as refugees. I guess that’s why he was going to send them on to America.

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  9. While I can imagine it was different at the time I still find it hard to believe that anyone would think a vacation in France in 1940 would be a good idea! I do think we have a much better understanding now of the trauma it causes children when they are separated from their families at a young age.

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    • Yes, it certainly wouldn’t have been my choice of a vacation spot in 1940! And their parents and wider family. I felt the kids might possibly be young enough to settle in America, but I couldn’t get rid of the idea of their grandparents desperately looking for them and perhaps never finding out what had happened to them.

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      • I read a WWII book where at the end there was a group trying to find the Jewish children who had sheltered with non-Jewish families. The idea being that even if their parents hadn’t survived it was important that they return to their own culture and extended families. This sort of sounds like a guy goes on holiday and kidnaps a bunch of kids!

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        • Haha, yes, that’s what it felt like to me! I often even wonder what the long-term impact was on the British kids who were evacuated out of the cities and were separated from their parents sometimes for years. It always surprises me that that doesn’t seem ever to have been explored much in fiction, unless maybe it has and I’ve just missed the books!

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          • You’re right, I’ve never heard much about that either. There is a kids series from a Canadian author that I read when I was young about siblings who get sent to Canada during the war. The last book was about the difficulties the youngest sibling has on returning to England when he has spent so many years away from his parents. That’s really the only book I can think of that mentions there being long-term problems with that situation.

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            • Yes, I think it must have been even harder for kids who were sent abroad. If they were young enough when they went, they would probably even have picked up a Canadian accent and got used to the way of life over there. It must have been really difficult for them to be uprooted again and be somehow expected to just fit back in to a life that in some cases they might have almost completely forgotten.

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            • It seems like we have a very different (and helpfully more nuanced) understanding of childhood and attachment than a few generations ago. I wonder if many of those kids who spent years in another country eventually returned to those countries as adults? Did they feel at home back in England or did they want to return to Canada when they could?

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            • Interesting question! There weren’t so many Scots kids evacuated, I believe, since apart from our shipyards we weren’t targeted as much as some of the English cities, so I’ve never met anyone who was evacuated, as far as I know. But I know from my own parents how much their wartime experiences shaped them, and both my mum and dad went back in later years to visit the places they’d been stationed to see what they were like in peace-time. So I imagine evacuated children may well have felt the same pull to go back. I wonder too if many of them kept in touch with the families that took them in.

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  10. Shute’s novels were definitely written for a different time period which meant different reader acceptance and perception. It would be difficult to set aside our 21st century ideas to read this story.

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    • Yes, it’s often hard to get into the mindset of the people who would have been reading a book at the time, but partly that’s why I find reading books like this interesting. It tends to make me think more about how it felt for people living through these events.

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