Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Nevil Shute

My favorite author these days is Nevil Shute. That makes my taste decidedly middle-brow, but so be it. I have read nearly every novel he has written and have liked them all, especially Trustee from the Toolroom, A Town Like Alice, and the one I just finished, Pied Piper.

Shute’s stories typically feature a simple, regular, salt-of-the-earth person thrust into trying circumstances from which, by pluck, determination, and honest hard work he or she emerges alive and carrying on, head up if not exactly held high.

In Pied Piper, an elderly British soliciter, on a fly fishing vacation in France during the spring of 1940 finds himself having to shepherd a group of small children to safety from near Lyon to England as the invading German Army advances.

The story chronicles the challenges he faces and the emotional turmoil he undergoes in taking responsibility for the children’s lives. There’s a subplot involving a young French woman who was romantically involved with the Englishman’s son, a pilot killed during the early stages of World War II and the way the details emerge are extremely touching. The characters, as do most of the people in Shute’s novels, play their emotional cards very close to the vest and so when their feelings do come out, it just breaks you up.

I was reading the book on the plane ride back from San Francisco yesterday and as I got to its climax, tears were streaming down my face. As much as I love crying in movies and at plays, I like it even better when I’m moved to tears by the written word. I first had that experience reading James Collier’s The Teddy Bear Habit when I was about 10 and I’ve savored it ever since.

I was turned on to Shute by Grant Peterson at Rivendell Bike Works. They sell a few of his books and embody, in their bikes, I think, some of the admirable qualities of Shute’s characters.


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