Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Pied Piper by Nevil Shute and Those Under-loved "Other" Books

I think I like reading those "other" books - you know, the less famous ones by an author who has written a really famous book that eclipses, you know, all their other work despite the other work's awesomeness. I mean, ever since it was required reading in one of my college history classes, I've loved The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque author of the extremely famous All Quiet on the Western Front, which, it happens, I haven't read (but plan to!). It seems like with Pied Piper I've managed the same sort of feat again. Nevil Shute is decidedly more famous for his other works like On the Beach or even A Town Like Alice, two more books that I've never even considered reading (but most certainly will consider now!).

In fact, I'd never even heard of Pied Piper until it was proposed by my book group's leader for our last read of the summer. To be quite honest, when I heard the title I immediately thought "lame." I have no idea why, considering I had not the faintest clue who wrote it or what it was about or really anything about it. When our book group leader summarized it before handing out copies, my interest was finally piqued, and I'm extremely glad of it.

The story starts out innocently enough when elderly John Sidney Howard decides to take a fishing holiday to Jura in France in an attempt to distract himself from the recent death of his son, a pilot in the RAF. Unfortunately, his timing in taking such a trip is uncommonly bad considering that he chooses to take this outing during early World War II when Germany is poised to invade France. As the threat draws closer, Howard obliviously enjoys the peace and fishing that the tiny hamlet of Cidoton has to offer. While there, he makes the acquaintance of an English woman and her husband, an officer of the League of Nations working in nearby Switzerland, as well as their two small children. Before long, the German threat can no longer be ignored, and Howard knows that he must make for England before France is overtaken. In fear, the two parents plea with Howard to take their two children, Ronald and Sheila, to stay with relatives in England while they remain to face whatever may come. Howard agrees, and thus begins their dangerous and unusual journey. When Sheila falls ill and delays their departure, Howard finds himself escorting the children across a country fraught with danger and facing the distinct possibility that it may just be impossible to get out.

Pied Piper is such a rich story. Howard starts out with two children and a certitude that surely France couldn't be taken and ultimately ends up desperately fleeing occupied France largely on foot with a growing troop of lost children. Really, it's brilliant Shute's occupied France filled with German soldiers busy making war and conquering juxtaposed with Howard and seven children under the age of eleven, children who have hardly the faintest idea of the danger of what's going on. Shute plays off their innocence against one of the darkest times in history as the children plea to see the tanks and the planes, even at their peril, happily swim in a creek as the Germans populate the countryside, and keep enquiring as to whether they will soon be riding the train with the sleeper car when, for British children, riding in a train at all could be perilous.

The stolid, grey-faced Germans looked on mirthlessly, uncomprehending. For the first time in their lives they were seeing foreigners, displaying the crushing might and power of their mighty land. It confused them and perplexed them that their prisoners should be so flippant as to play games with their children in the corridor outside the very office of the Gestapo. It found the soft spot in the armour of their pride; they felt an insult which could not be properly defined. This was not what they had understood when their Fuhrer had last spoken from the Sport-Palast. This victor was not as they had thought it would be.

As the old man traverses France in search of the best or, really, any way out, the children he meets and takes under his wing all have their own heart-rending stories and reactions to their situations that cast a different sort of light on the events of World War II. Along the way, Howard not only manages to fill up the void of his own history by attempting to escort the future out of a war zone, but also is re-acquainted with someone who will ultimately help him reconcile his own feelings about the loss of his son.

Pied Piper is a beautiful story with so many dimensions that I couldn't hope to chronicle here, nor would I want to, and risk ruining the experience of this story for others. It deals with so many aspects of World War II and occupied France that I'd hardly considered before and all in a story that's so engrossing that you barely realize the power of its insight until after you've nearly passed it by.

I've heard that this book is out of print (Boo! Bring it back!), but if you can get ahold of it at a library or used book store or wherever, you should definitely not pass it by. You should pick up a copy and send it to me so I can have one to keep get it and read it and, hopefully, love it as much as I did!

But wait - before you run out to find this book (presumptious much? :P), tell me: Do you have any favorite books that are the "other" books - the ones overshadowed by their wildly famous kin? If you do, I'd love to hear your recommendations!


  1. huh. I like your explanation of 'other' books and can't say I have any books in my past-reading list that qualifies. Hmmmm.
    I've read On the Beach and only seen the movie of AQOTWF.
    but to be honest, I've barely read the famous books so how would I even know about the others! ha. AND... I have to admit that I am not one of those readers that follow an author so I'm just not your target reader here, am I?

  2. I can't say that the book that I would like to recommend is an under-loved book, however I hadn't ever heard of the author before stumbling across it at Boarders. I am not sure whether or not you like historical memoirs, but if so, you will love this one. The book is titled, "Abandoned and Forgotten" by Evelyne Tannehill. The book is about the author's experience of living in Germany as a little girl, and becoming orphaned during World War II. The author's way of explaining the terror she, her family and friends felt during that time is so vivid and detailed. I was intrigued at page 1.

  3. I love the idea of other books, but I'm not sure if I have actually *read* any :P Anyway, I love the sound of this. Having recently read a book that explores a less well-known aspect of WWII, I'm in the mood for more.

    Wait, that's an "other book"! It's Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, best known for Ballet Shoes.

  4. This is a great question. I can't think of anything off the top of my head though! I'm off to ponder...

  5. I may not be monogamous when it comes to books and authors, but I do admit that if I fall in love with one book, I will likely look for other books by that same author. Sometimes I will want to start with the author's earlier works before venturing into the more famous ones. I can't say I have a favorite-yet-but that doesn't mean there won't be at some point.

    I haven't read anything by Nevil Shute, but you've certainly got me interested in Pied Piper. I have a thing for books set during the WWII era. I'll have to keep an eye out for this one (I hate it when books I want to read are out of print).

  6. Care - Ha! For quite awhile I was pretty sure this post, uh, had no readers at all let alone targeted readers, so your comment is much appreciated! ;-) I've barely read the famous books myself! Say, is On the Beach any good?

    Becky - I love historical memoirs. I'll have to check this one out. Thanks!

    Nymeth - Ah, yay, another "other" book! I read your review, and it definitely sounds like one for my wish list. Thanks!

    Trisha - Let me know if you think of any. It's always fun when I happen upon a lesser known book by a well known author, but I'd love to keep seeking out some on my own, too1 =)

  7. Wendy - The WWII era is among my favorite time periods to read about. Though I've sadly neglected the World War II challenge, I'm kind of proud of myself for having discovered a book that wasn't on their very comprehensive list of WWII reads. Hope you manage to unearth a copy somehow. Not gonna lie, I was kind of tempted to default on book club and skip town with my copy (provided by a high school library). ;-)

  8. I only heard of Nevil Shute for the first time last week. I really want to read one of his now and was lucky enough to find a copy of this one on bookmooch. Do you think this will be a good introduction to his books or should I try to read one of the others first?

  9. Jackie - good for you! I think Pied Piper would be a great Shute to start out with, but as I said I haven't read any of the rest. That said, though, this one did make me want to seek out the rest of his work, so I guess that would make it a good starting point!

  10. I tend to be a contrarian so I like a lot of "other" books. Tender is the Night instead of Great Gatsby, Robber Bride instead of The Handmaid's Tale, Babbitt instead of Main Street and the list would go on and on.

    And I love Nevil Shute. I have read about 5 of his so far and have enjoyed all of them.