"The German got up and walked to the window. (...) 'I think that you must be a very brave man to talk as you have done.'
Howard smiled faintly. 'Not a brave man,' he said. 'Only a very old one. Nothing you can do can take much away from me, because I've had it all.'"
As you will have guessed, the title is a reference to the famous folk story "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", in which a piper is hired to get rid of the rats that are infesting the town of Hamelin. When the townspeople refuse to pay him for his services, he takes his revenge by luring all the children away.
The 'pied piper' of Shute's novel is one of a rather different nature. John Howard is an elderly British gentleman, who -disappointed that his country doesn't seem to need his services anymore, even at times of war (Word War II has just broken out)- travels to France for a fishing holiday. While there, Germany invades France and Howard is stuck. He decides to try and find his way back to England. Friends of his persuade him to take their two children along and bring them to safety. On his way, he meets other children, abandoned or recently orphaned, and they join his ever-growing group. But leaving France is not without some major problems, especially with a bunch of children following in his wake.
John Howard is an unforgettable character. His sense of duty and dignity never wavers, even when all hope seems to be lost. This an excellent novel about a dark period in our history. War is madness and no-one gains from it. But it also shows us that -as long a there are people like Howard around- there is still hope for mankind. And -by God- we all know how much we need that is these troubled times.
Author: Nevil Shute
Title: Pied Piper
Publisher: Vintage, London
Year: 2009 (orig. 1942)
Number of pages: 303 p.