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Two Vintage Novels for Summer Reading

Bob Trube recently had an outstanding column at his blog, BobOnBooks.com. His entry was called Bookstore Browsing for Beginners. Bob listed seven excellent suggestions designated for beginning book browsers, but I think they are inspiring ideas for long-time browsers, too. From the seven suggestions listed in the blog, the one that especially caught my eye was, “Look for books that have copyrights that are twenty years old or more.” For those of us who are constantly looking ahead to the next book from a favorite author, or who watch the up-and-coming books on best-seller lists, it is somewhat atypical to consider reading publications from the past, but what a splendid reminder that there are any number of older books that have plenty to offer a reader today. Thanks to Bob Trube for that good word!

In response to Bob Trube’s suggestion, the two novels being reviewed this week have copyrights over 50 years old.

The first novel is Pied Piper by Nevil Shute ( Vintage Books,1942.) Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960) was an English aeronautical engineer and author. According to the short biography at the beginning of Pied Piper, he wrote novels as an avocation, “using the name Nevil Shute to protect his engineering career.”

The setting for Pied Piper is England and France during the days when war with Germany was expected but had not yet begun. The main character is an elderly, retired English solicitor named John Howard. Through a conversation Howard has with another man, we learn that Howard has offered his services to his country to help fight the war, but he is informed that he is too old. This rejection is very distressing to Howard. Soon after this disappointment Howard receives news that causes him to become depressed and restless. He seeks to escape his emotional turmoil by leaving London and going to Europe for a brief holiday. He chooses a small village in France as his destination, one he had visited years before. During his stay he meets and spends time with an English family — the father is a member the League of Nations who works in Switzerland; the gentleman has a wife and two young children. While Howard is in France, war breaks out, forcing him to make plans to return to England. When he tells the young family he has befriended that he plans to leave for England, the gentleman asks if Howard will take his two children to England with him to a relative there while he completes his work in Geneva. The gentleman knows, due to his connections in Switzerland, that it is advisable to leave Europe as soon as possible. His wife will stay with him until his work is finished, and then they will return to England as soon as they are able in order to reunite with their children. Howard sees this as his opportunity to be of service in wartime, and agrees to the plan.

After taking the children into his care, Howard discovers that leaving Europe is a difficult, almost impossible task for anyone who wishes to decamp and find a safe haven elsewhere. As he tries to make his way back to England, Howard comes upon more young children in need, and one by one, they join his group – thus the Pied Piper title.

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute is a quintessentially English novel, written with compassion and honesty. It is also a tale of surprises, the biggest being that a solitary, old, frail man becomes a hero through whom many young children are saved from harm during the war.

Pied Piper would be an excellent book to take on a summer weekend away. It is well written, not lengthy, has plenty of action and stirs up meaningful questions such as how does one respond to the presence of evil, or why do small acts of kindness bring great joy?

The second novel is Kingfishers Catch Fire, (Milkweed Editions, 1953), by Rumer Godden. Godden (1907-1998) was born in Sussex, England, but spent the majority of her childhood in India with her parents and three sisters. Almost all of Godden’s novels are suffused with her memories of India, but many reviews and critical essays of her work state that the most autobiographical of her books is Kingfishers Catch Fire.

The first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Kingfishers Catch Fire” is the title of Godden’s book. It seems to capture the beauty and the incendiary personality of the protagonist in Kingfishers, Sophia Barrington Ward — Sophie. Sophie is an Englishwoman whose husband is employed in India. Sophie and her two children are living in a houseboat in India when they learn that Denzil, Sophie’s husband, has died. Because of Denzil’s poor money management, Sophie is left with only a small pension to support her family; Sophie chooses a disastrous way to cope with this situation. “We will be rich by becoming poor,” thinks the romantic and idealistic Sophie as she sets up housekeeping in a tiny mountain village in Kashmir. Sophie does not realize that her idea to live among the Muslims and Hindus in a remote village will not be accepted by either group, and that competition and subterfuge directed toward Sophie will cause a rift among the villagers while at the same time putting her family’s welfare at risk. Teresa, Sophie’s eight year old daughter, sees life far more clearly than does her mother, but Teresa is in the irresolvable position of being a child, and is therefore powerless and ignored.

Godden’s writing is lush and plays to all the senses. Her descriptions of the landscape, the weather and native people are detailed and enthralling. Godden is able to conjure up a dreamlike quality in her writing, which suits this story of intrigue very well, but she also keeps the reality of Sophie’s bad decisions clearly in front of the reader which adds plenty of tension to the tale. Sophie is the main character of Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, but she is not an admirable person as is John Howard in Shute’s Pied Piper; Sophie is an antihero, a troubling character whose actions may cause the reader to dislike her at times. Despite her numerous failures and foolish actions, Sophie manages to redeem herself in Godden’s story, but not without paying a high price.

Kingfishers is a marvelous book, a wondrous escape from the mundane to the exotic, and a gripping volume to enjoy when you have a pleasant stretch of time to read, whether at home or abroad.

Nevil Shute and Rumer Godden were extremely popular authors in their day. Both have written numerous books and have had several of their novels made into movies which are still available for viewing. Perhaps this summer will be the ideal time to discover their “vintage” novels, Pied Piper and Kingfishers Catch Fire.