Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author I’ve been intending to try for a long time. His 1942 novel, Pied Piper, is on my Classics Club list and I decided to also put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to give me some extra motivation to pick it up and read it sooner rather than later! I have no idea whether this was the best Shute novel to begin with – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are probably better known; however, it turned out to be a good choice for me.

The ‘pied piper’ of the title is John Sidney Howard, an elderly Englishman who goes to France in the spring of 1940 to spend some time fishing, relaxing and trying to come to terms with the death of his son whose plane came down in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. It may seem a strange time to be taking a holiday in Europe, but Howard believes the situation in France is stable and that he won’t be in any danger. However, when the Nazis begin to advance much more quickly than he expected, Howard decides to return home immediately. His departure is delayed when an English couple staying in the same hotel ask him to take their two young children with him to the safety of England, but soon Howard, accompanied by little Sheila and Ronnie, is boarding the train to Paris for the first stage of his journey.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Howard and the children find themselves facing one obstacle after another, including sickness, cancelled trains and German bombing raids. Along the way, Howard collects more lost or orphaned children and together they try to avoid the rapidly advancing German army and make their way to safety.

I usually enjoy novels with World War II settings, but I find it particularly interesting when they were actually written during the war itself. It makes a book feel very different when you know that at the time of writing, the author had no idea what would happen next or how the war would eventually end. It’s intriguing to think of how a 1942 reader may have viewed a book like this compared to those of us who are reading it today with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of history.

Another thing which makes Pied Piper different from a lot of other wartime novels is that Shute’s protagonist is so ordinary – not a soldier or a spy or a romantic young lover, but a quiet, unassuming old man who becomes a hero unintentionally through a mixture of circumstance and his own basic decency and humanity. The only link between Howard and the sinister ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (apart from the obvious connection with children) comes when we see Howard making whistles from hazel twigs for his young companions to play with.

Although Howard and the children witness and experience some terrible things during their journey, they also encounter several people who offer kindness and generosity, so the novel shows us both the best and the worst of human nature. The book is structured using a framing narrative where Howard is relating the story of his adventures in France to a friend in a London club during an air raid several weeks into the future. This means we know almost from the first page that Howard has survived to tell the tale, yet there’s still plenty of suspense and I was genuinely afraid for him and for the children at various points throughout the novel!

Which of Nevil Shute’s books should I read next?

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This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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This is also book 29/50 from my second Classics Club list.

25 thoughts on “Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Excellent! I’ve been looking forward to your review of this. I liked ‘On the Beach’ but I LOVED ‘A Town Like Alice’ (much to my surprise to be honest). Stories with war as a background, seen from the viewpoint of “ordinary” people, can be particularly good. I’ll definitely be pushing this up my classics list – but I’ll have to buy it first! [grin] But I do *already* own two of his…. [muses]

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure whether On the Beach appeals to me very much, but I do like the sound of A Town Like Alice. Sorry for tempting you with this one when you already own two others! 🙂

      • Cyberkitten says:

        ‘On the Beach’ is a tad depressing I admit. the movie is very good though. The two I own are very thin so it won’t take me long to finish them – once I *start* that is!

  2. Lark says:

    I love the sound of this one! Here’s hoping my library has a copy because I really want to read it. The only other Nevil Shute book I’ve read is A Town Like Alice, which is one of my all time favorite books. I’ve read it many times. 😀

  3. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve only read good things about this novel and as yours is the latest (but doubtless not the last!) and you sell it so well I feel sure I shall give this a go soon!

  4. mallikabooks15 says:

    I liked this one very much as well, and largely for the same reason you did, that Howard is a perfectly ordinary man who ends up having to do the extraordinary. A Town Like Alice is on my radar as well.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I loved the way Howard was such an ordinary person who ended up carrying out heroic acts. I think this was a good choice for my first Nevil Shute book, but I do like the sound of A Town Like Alice as well and am looking forward to reading it.

  5. hopewellslibraryoflife says:

    Good review. I recently read and reviewed (and loved) Far Country. Now I’m on Pastoral, which is proving a little slow to start (not that in to fishing….). I love A Town Like Alice. I will definitely be reading Pied Piper. I’m doing his back list as I am motivated (well, it’s all backlist now, but you get my meaning I’m sure…)

  6. FictionFan says:

    I’ve just read this one too (not reviewed yet) and also enjoyed it, though I found it quite slow – that may have been because I listened to the audiobook rather than reading a paper copy though. I haven’t read a lot of Shute but my favourite so far is On the Beach.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll look out for your review. I’m glad you enjoyed it, despite the slowness – I did find it a little bit slow at the beginning, but it wasn’t too much of a problem with the paper copy. A Town Like Alice appeals to me a bit more than On the Beach, but I’m sure I’ll read both eventually!

  7. Karen K. says:

    I’ve read several by Shute in the last few years and A Town Like Alice and Pied Piper were my favorites. I did read On the Beach in the spring of 2020 which in retrospect was a very bad decision. It’s good but it was a really bad time to tackle it.

    I also liked Requiem For A Wren and The Far Country. I’ve heard really good things about Trustee From the Toolroom and want to read that one next.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I can see that spring 2020 wouldn’t have been the best time to read On the Beach! That one doesn’t appeal to me much, but I do want to read A Town Like Alice soon. Thanks for the other two recommendations!

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