Wed
Nov 2 2011 2:00pm

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.

13 comments
dmg
1. dmg
Another excellent commentary, Jo, that inspires me to read the book. Thank you.

One question, though: I am unclear your meaning when you say, "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." Pink and blue? Gendered? Do you mean, neutered?

See, I am confused. Help!
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
I mean it's hard to think of a modern mainstream bestseller that isn't clearly aimed at either men only or women only. And the covers pretty much are colour coded accordingly. James Patterson is writing for men and Nora Roberts for women while Shute was clearly writing for both. I'm not saying readers don't cross the intended divide on this one, but look at a rack of paperback bestsellers in a newsagent sometime if you want to know what I mean.
Beth Friedman
3. carbonel
I read this one in my teens, when I was going through a period of reading WWII- and Holocaust-related books, both fiction and nonfiction. I remember this as one of the brighter spots in the gloom.

And yes, I never thought about the correlations with Blackout/All Clear, but they're there as soon as I look.
Dorothy Johnston
4. CloudMist
I've never read this book but I remember catching the tail end of a movie that was made from it. I think Otto Preminger played the German officer who lets the Englishman and all the kids go if the Englishman takes the German's daughter with him.

Anyway, off to the Kindle store to see if it's available.
dmg
5. a1ay
the whistles made out of hazel twigs all across Europe.

Hence "clean as a whistle" - because a whistle is a twig that's just had the bark peeled off?
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
Yes, an absolutely charming book and one I just re-read a few weeks ago. I hadn't really thought of this and the others, such as the Bomber Command book that were published during WWII in that way- that the end wasn't foretold.
dmg
7. HélèneB
I remember a teacher recommended "A town like Alice" when I was thirteen or fourteen. I hesistated to read it (on a teacher list, beurk!) but eventually read it - along Wuthering Heights, on the same list...
It was one of the most moving reading I ever did. I never dared to thank her at the time but I never forget her - and never set aside any books just because they came recommended by teachers! I discovered english litterature with these books now that I think of it.
dmg
8. Bruce A.
I've read a lot of Shute's books, enjoyed almost all of them. I like the recurring theme in most, that ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances can become extraordinary people. This generally involves resolving some great problem and/or acomplishing some great task.

Tho' not always. The big exception to that is ON THE BEACH, where the great problem is insurmountable, and the story is about how Shute's characters face that insurmountable problem.

One of my favorite Shutes is MOST SECRET, another novel with a WWII setting. It's also a bit of an exception, because Shute's characters are generally decent people who... remain decent, even in the face of tragedy and barbarism. In MOST SECRET, one of the main characters is broken and destroyed by the war, and all that's left is essentially a machine... a very ruthless and efficient machine... for killing Germans. It was a character both tragic and frightening.
dmg
9. Alasam2h
I have missed several of Nevil Shute's novels (this one included), but he has written some phenomenal stuff. I loved Trustee from the Toolroom and On the Beach. And since I really enjoyed Balckout/All Clear, this one is going on my list. Along with a couple of others that people have mentioned that I missed. Thanks for putting these recommendations and reviews up.
dmg
10. Alasam2h
And I forgot to mention that Nevil Shute was the pen name for Nevil Shute Norway who was an accomplished engineer as well as an accomplished novelist. His autobiography through 1938 is Slide Rule and is also very interesting.
Nick Eden
11. NickPheas
MOST SECRET is the one I'm alawys surprised he was alowed to publish. My understanding is that despite being an aircraft engineer pre-war, he was designed weird weapons for the navy during the war. So a book about the people designing and operating weird weapons for the navy is a remarkable thing to publish before the end of the war.

PASTORAL, the bomber command novel alluded to above pretty much invents the genre. Could either Memphis Belle or Catch-22 have happened without it?
Glenda Wilson
12. glinda
In case I haven't said this before, thanks for these re-reads /
recommendations! Just placed this (and the autobiography) on hold from
the library.
dmg
13. dancing crow
One of my dad's favorite books is Trustee from the Toolroom. I read it at an impressionable age, and in retrospect I begin to understand where a lot of my dad's global sailing adventures took root. I came to Shute through On the Beach which I hated, so I had trouble thinking about reading others of his until I made the connection.

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