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Pied Piper    by Nevil Shute order for
Pied Piper
by Nevil Shute
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2010 (1965)
Softcover, Paperback, Audio, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

In the spring of 1940 John Howard, an Englishman who is seventy years old, goes to southern France for a fishing holiday. Hitler is fighting his way across Europe, but the war is so far to the north that Howard believes he is in no danger. In fact, he is returning to a place with many good memories, where he went skiing with his son a couple of years previous to the events in this story. He hopes to rest and recover from the shock of his son's recent death.

There is a young English family staying at the same hotel, but they are not on vacation. Rather, they have fled their home in Switzerland because they are sure whether or not Germany will invade that country. There are two children, ages 5 and 7, who stay with their mother during the week, and the father drives from Switzerland to join them on weekends. Howard has a young grandson of his own, and gradually befriends his fellow English citizens, enjoying watching the children play when he's not fishing. The war in the north is worsening, though, and he decides that he should return home as the Germans begin their invasion of Paris.

As he is getting ready to leave, the young father approaches him and asks him if he could possibly take the two children with him, since there will be food shortages if the war reaches so far south and the children might be safer staying with relatives in England. After discussing the situation intensely with the parents and doing some soul-searching of his own, he decides that he can take them since a train trip across France will be little more than a day's journey, and they will all be safely in England in a relatively short time. The young mother wants to stay with her husband, rather than face a lengthy separation from him.

Howard leaves with the children and almost immediately experiences problems. The little girl becomes feverish and ill and he must stop at a hotel where he stays for a couple of days while she recovers. Meanwhile, it appears that Paris will be taken by the Germans, and Howard debates whether he should return the children to their parents (who by now would be in Switzerland), or go on, hoping that he can find a way around Paris if the city falls. Deciding to go on, he once again prepares to leave with the children, and one of the maids talks him into taking her ten-year-old niece with them to rejoin her father in England - this child has been helpful to him in taking care of the little five-year-old English girl while she was ill.

Howard gathers up children as he goes, struggling to survive in the ever-worsening countryside, and we become engrossed in his difficulties. He is an elderly gentleman, travelling with an increasingly motley assortment of children, whom he calms, feeds, washes and tucks in at night, wherever they find themselves, taking care of them as best he can. This man is so good. He manages with grace and charm to protect the children in his care from the horrors that they eventually travel through. We wonder whether they will make it to England, and if so, how.

I loved this story, both times that I read it, a little over ten years ago and again this week. In fact, I had been thinking about it and wondering where I could find a copy to read again when this new edition came out. What luck for me, and for anyone else who reads it, as the details are even better than the outline that I've sketched above! Nevil Shute was a terrific story-teller, and especially good are the stories he wrote about the time period during World War II. This one has a unique and interesting plot that kept me up late finishing it both times I read it.

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