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For those of you who have never read a book by Nevil Shute, now is the time. No special anniversary that I know of, it’s just that you are missing out on a really great storyteller. I attach some qualifications to this recommendation, but nothing that even comes close to diminishing my enthusiasm for his work. Some of Shute’s novels use some appallingly dated racist language, but I chalk that up to the era in which they were written, and I have my fingers crossed that the man himself wasn’t actually racist. There is also a certain corniness to some of Shute’s dialog. It sometimes sounds like it comes straight from one of those fast talking, black and white films from the 1940s. And his novels tend to be the kind where if every line doesn’t move the plot forward, your foreshadowing alarm should go off. Although there is usually a romance of some kind that is part of the mix, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his books are shot full of testosterone-laden adventures. But interesting and suspenseful enough to enthrall even someone like me who likes a lot of “old lady” books.
Pied Piper is the story of John Howard, a retired Englishman who is on holiday in France at the outbreak of World War II. Reluctantly agreeing to take two small English children back to England with him, Howard ends up finding it increasingly difficult to make his way home with the Nazis rolling into France with much more speed than anyone anticipated. During the journey home Howard comes across five more children that need his help escaping France. Since the story unfurls as a flashback, I won’t be giving anything away by mentioning that Howard makes it back to safety. I won’t say whether or not his young charges were as lucky--but have you ever seen a movie with a child character whose stupidity ends up getting folks in trouble? ‘Nuff said about that. The fact that book was published in 1942, long before the end of the war, gives one a different perspective on the tale as well. With the war not yet won, personal heroism (and more than a tinge of Commonwealthism/nationalism) have to take the place of a larger WWII victory narrative.
There is always enough non-fiction in a Shute novel that most of them have me racing to the Internet or some reference material to investigate further some aspect of the story. Pied Piper is no exception. As I made my way through this page turner, I pulled out my big map of France to follow Howard’s progress, which made the story all the more exciting.
Shute was born in England in 1899, worked as an aeronautical engineer, and, upset over the direction England was headed, emigrated to Australia with his family in 1950 and died in 1960. Although I have enjoyed other Nevil Shute novels, it was the recent reissue of four of his books in these great Vintage Classics’ covers (available in the UK) that made me pick up Pied Piper. Vintage has other Shute titles available without the cool covers, but I think many of his 23 novels are out of print. But they can be fun quarry while book hunting at garage sales, charity shops, and secondhand bookstores.
Other Shute books I have read include:
On the Beach (1957)
This was the first Shute I ever read. I was in high school and sobbed like a baby for the last 30 pages. I could barely read it through the tears. Atomic war has wreaked havoc on the northern hemisphere. Shute chronicles life in Melbourne as they wait for the radioactive fallout to reach them. Also made into a good movie with the young (and very handsome) Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame.
Times Square at Night, c. 1955* by Bedrich Grunzweig
(*I love the image on this postcard and the fact that On the Beach is on the marquee makes it even more special to me. But I just realized that the estimated date of the photograph on the card is wrong. On the Beach was published in 1957, and the film came out in 1959, so it couldn't date from '55.)
This is probably my favorite Shute because of the subject matter. Another “flashback” novel (this time to 1980!), it tells the story of a biracial Australian airman who finds himself in very interesting circumstances. As England trends towards socialism the royal family face the possibility of exile. But the Commonwealth comes to the rescue! The Australians and Canadians agree to build and operate a two-craft fleet of super cool De Havilland jets, for the sole use of the royals. The fleet is soon put into use to shuttle the Queen and her consort to various Commonwealth countries around the world as they escape from England until things settle down a bit. I loved this book because of the hardware component (I am a sucker for airplanes) but also for its Royal fantasy element—in the same way I liked Alan Bennett’s alternate universe in The Uncommon Reader.
Ordeal (1938 – or What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK):
Also hugely enjoyable. How one family survives when Southampton is bombed and sickness and disease are causing all kinds of shortages and quarantines. The Corbetts live on their little sailboat, skirting the coast of England trying to stay outside the quarantined areas and survive.
A Town Like Alice (1950):
Aside from Pied Piper, this was the most recent Shute I have read. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favorites even though it is one of Shute’s most popular. A couple meets while prisoners of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II. They meet later in Australia where the heroine is determined to create a successful community in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
I enjoyed this one but I don’t remember too much about it. Life and love in and around an aerodrome in southern England during World War II.
Nancy Pearl, in More Book Lust (a follow-up to the much more fantastic Book Lust) says that Nevil Shute is "too good to miss". And she is right.