Rescuing Children in Wartime: Nevil Shute’s Pied Piper

Pretty much all of Nevil Shute is comfort reading for me, and this one even more than the others. Some of his books are problematic on race, class and gender issues, and even with due allowance for him being ahead of his own time, that can make them jarring to read now. Pied Piper doesn’t have any of these problems, and it’s pretty much the ideal place to start reading Shute. It’s where I started reading him when I was a child. It was written in 1941 and published in 1942 and it is set in 1940. It’s the story of an elderly Englishman caught in France at the beginning of the invasion who escapes back to Britain with a slowly growing group of children of multiple ethnicities. (Two English, one French, one Belgian, one Dutch, one Polish Jew, one German of mixed German and Jewish ancestry.) It has a buried love story, it has perilous escapes, it has more means of transportation than almost anything. It’s also unusual in having a hero who is an old widower with a heart condition who is fond of fishing.

Pied Piper is set at a very specific historical period which would have been intimately familiar to its original readers. The precise dates of every day in the story are given, and the incidents of the novel are related to the wider events of the war. Shute wrote it at night during the Blitz while working designing aeroplanes by day, and as with all the books he wrote during WWII he wrote it specifically to be raise people’s spirits. This worked. It has been raising my spirits for decades now. It’s gentle and cheering and absorbing — even though I know it extremely well, I can’t put it down once I start it. It’s quite short — 253 pages in the 1970 Pan edition I own. I don’t think I’ve ever taken more than a few hours to read it straight through.

Despite the fact that it’s a comfort book, there’s also a way that it’s an alien artifact, and a way in which reading it is a science fictional experience. It wasn’t written for me. The children of Europe who represent the promise of a future here are older than my parents. And it’s not just that England and France of 1940 have different technology and different social mores — Shute daringly has a woman who has had unmarried sex survive to the end of the novel! But consider that Pied Piper was written and read by people who didn’t know who was going to win, or how long the war would last, or how it would unfold. It works read now when we can recollect in tranquility, but it was written to be read in media res, when the issue was still in doubt. Reading it now we’re reading a historical document, not a historical novel. This was written and read at a time when the bombs were still falling, all escape was provisional, and people’s spirits could be thought of as munitions. Not only do the characters not know what’s going to happen, the author didn’t either.

Shute was of course a huge bestseller in his own time, but he’s very much out of fashion now. Thinking of him as a bestseller makes me realise how very gendered mainstream bestsellers seem to be now — they might as well be pink and blue. Shute’s novels tend to have a romance, though it was seldom the focus. They also tend to have a lot of technology and an essentially scientific way of thinking about technology and progress — there’s not much of that here, unless you count transport as technology. They cross France in trains, buses, an Army truck, a car, a dung cart, and on foot. Shute’s amazingly good at coming up with the tiny details that provide versimilitude — the little boy who is only allowed chocolate after lunch, the sound of machine guns, the whistles made out of hazel twigs all across Europe.

If you enjoyed Blackout/All Clear, you might like Pied Piper even more.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


Subscribe to this thread