Wednesday, December 30, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
This week I’m highlighting two very good, but very different, novels about the Second World War.
The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forrester, is a tribute to the courage of those men who escorted the supply convoys across the North Atlantic in the early years of WWII. The author takes us immediately to the bridge of the Keeling, an American destroyer under the leadership of Commander Krause, and within the first ten pages we are given a close-up view of the enormous responsibility borne by an escort commander, who faced not only the ever-present threat of German U-boat activity, but the timeless dangers associated with traversing the North Atlantic during winter gales. The story deals, on one level, with the running battle that the escort wages against a U-boat pack in the final days before the arrival of its convoy in England, and on a more subtle level, with the internal struggles that every man faces when charged with extraordinary responsibilities that test his physical, mental and moral capacities to the uttermost. It is a compelling story of men striving to do their duty in circumstances that most of us can only imagine; however, Forrester does a magnificent job in assisting our imaginations with his watch-by-watch account of this nautical dance of death.
In Nevil Shute’s Pied Piper, we see quite another side of the war: the quiet determination and pluck of septuagenarian John Sidney Howard, who has had the misfortune of taking his holiday in France as the Germans begin their blitzkrieg. As the Germans invade Belgium and then Holland, Howard decides to return home. A chance acquaintance - a rather foolish, but brave, optimist who is employed by the League of Nations and has decided to remain on the Continent with his wife to carry on his work - asks Howard to take his children back to England. Howard is not at all convinced that he is suited to the job, but, moved by the man’s desperation, he agrees. Thus begins a remarkable journey, as Howard makes for the coast, against the backdrop of the increasing German menace, and then, finally, the shock of the sudden fall of France. Along the way, he winds up being saddled with several more children, but he struggles manfully – and, one suspects, joyfully, having found a purpose in life after being rejected back home in England for any kind of war-related employment whatsoever. Eventually he reaches the coast, and makes a deal with a local fisherman to carry him and his charges to England, when his luck seems to run out after being brought in for questioning by a German officer. There is no longer any question of his hiding the fact that he is now an enemy non-combatant, and he seems destined for an internment camp – when his good fortune strikes one final time, in the unlikely form of a Gestapo officer who wants Howard to do him a very great, but very secret, personal favor. This is a marvelous escape yarn, but also much more than that; it is a generational tale showing the sometimes comical relationship between the old and the young, and above all, it is the noble story of a man unhesitatingly and almost instinctively performing a moral duty, heedless of the risks to himself. Pied Piper is an excellent showcase for the narrative talent of a wonderful Australian author.