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
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!