Nevil Shute was a writer you regularly saw on bookshelves in the sixties with such popular bestsellers as On the Beach and A Town called Alice. I had heard of him , for the least two but not the novel recommended by Harriet Gilbert on A Good Read, namely Pied Piper.
Nevil Shute – like James Salter – had an aviation background working as senior engineer for Hawker Siddley and Vickers whilst writing under his non de plume. Disillusioned by post war socialism in Britian he emigrated to Australia, by this time concentrating on his writing. He died of a stroke aged 60.
This story features an elderly solicitor Mr Howard who finds himself in the Jura region of France at the time the country fell in 1940. He is entrusted with the care of two young children, Sheila and Ronnie, by an English couple in his hotel who live in Switzerland and fear its imminent invasion. Along the route from east to west France via Dijon, Rennes and Chartres Howard picks up three more young children seeking security out of France.
The novel begins with Howard telling his story to a member at his London club so, though you know he is safe notwithstanding the club is being bombed, the narrational tension persists throughout. Shute is a master story teller. The novel is also of much interest as a depiction of France in pandemonium. This was the subject of the better known Suite Francaise but this was a draft that was never edited and in my view Pied Piper is a more revealing study. It must have been an extraordinary time with French citizens taking flight south, grabbing what they could, mainly in carts as the Germans rapidly sequestrated the trains. I found it especially interesting how France viewed the UK as letting them down to fight Germany alone as the British Expeditonary Force withdrew in some disorder. Howard represents the best of British, a man of solid integrity dedicated to delivery of his charges safely. By contrast the French are weak and venal and the Germans wicked though efficient.
As with Daphne du Maurier, a good story well told is never dated especially when it is a historical document. Over the years I have read novels by Sebastian Faulks, Robert Ryan and Simon Mawer on the exploits of the SOE but Pied Piper, with its emphasis on an elderly man and 5 children, is rather different and all the more admirable for that.