Pied Piper is the second book by Neville Shute that I’ve read and enjoyed very much – the first was A Town Like Alice. In both books an elderly man is a central figure in the story; in the first as the narrator and in the second as the protagonist, and the author has expressed so well the pathos and weariness of men who have lived faithful, quiet and sensible lives but have struggled with the pain of sudden loss and disappointment.
Frustrated by his inability to aid the war effort, Englishman John Sidney Howard travels to the relative peace of a village in the French countryside in 1940 and waits for the fishing season to begin. Insulated by Switzerland from Germany, the village feels detached from the war but before long news comes of the capitulation of King Leopold of Belgium followed by the evacuation of Dunkirk and Howard makes up his mind to return to England.
Asked by some friends to take their two young children with him he agrees and commences what he thinks will be a straightforward journey across France to the coast where he plans to cross the Channel by boat but with the German invasion of France his original plans are thwarted and he has to conceal his British identity.
By the time he reaches the English Channel he has six children of multiple nationalities in his care, the Nazis are closing in and in an unexpected turn of events he is charged with the care of another child.
‘Up to the last it had seemed incredible that he should not get through, hard though the way might be. But now he realised that he would not get through. The Germans were between him and the sea. In marching on to Angerville he was marching to disaster, to internment, probably to his death.That did not worry him so much. He was old and tired; if an end came now he would be missing nothing very much. A few more days of fishing, a few more summers pottering in his garden. But the children – they were another matter. Somehow he must make them secure…And what about the dirty little boy who was now with them, who had been stoned by old women mad with terror and blind hate? What would become of him?The old man suffered a good deal.’
This book views World War II through the eyes of an unusual protagonist, making it a thought-provoking read well worth the time.