Prather’s Pick: ‘The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse’ a compelling WWII historical novel
May 15, 2018
"The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse," a new novel for adults, was written by Alexander McCall Smith. Smith lives in Scotland and wrote the "No.1 Ladies' Detective" series, as well as other series and stand-alone books.
This week's novel is set in England during World War II. The leading character is Valerie (Val) Eliot. She is one of the land girls who has been placed on an 85-acre farm by the Ministry of Agriculture. The farmer is Archie Wilkinson, a kind man and a good farmer. Val's wage is two pounds, four shillings per week.
Val lives with Annie, her mother's sister. Val's mother died five years before, and her father went to Australia 13 years before. Willy is also staying with Annie, but he cannot cope with Army life, so he works on the land, too. His farmer is Ted Butters, who is not as kind as Archie and not as good a farmer, either. People know it is only a matter of time until the local War Agricultural Executive Committee, with wide powers, puts him off the farm and turns it over to someone else.
Butters has two cows, about 30 sheep and two border collies. Butters is mean to the sheepdogs, not feeding them well and beating them.
One day, the American planes arrive at a nearby military base. Archie says the planes are known as "Mosquitoes" and are used for reconnaissance work. Val gets to see the base firsthand when she delivers some eggs there. She meets Mike, one of the pilots whose home is Muncie, Indiana. Eventually, Mike and Val become sweethearts and plan to marry and move back to Indiana.
Meanwhile, Willy has problems getting along with Ted Butters. He especially dislikes the way the farmer treats the dogs. So one day, he shows up at Annie's with one of the dogs. It was after he witnessed Butters beating him. Willy just told Butters the dog was missing. First, Annie and then Archie take in and hide the dog. His name is Peter Woodhouse.
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As time goes on, Peter Woodhouse is in danger of being found out. Mike likes the dog, so Val takes him to the military base, where she hopes he can hide out for awhile. Sergeant Lisowski says they will indeed care for the dog — temporarily. However, it turns out that everyone likes Peter Woodhouse, especially the base commander. "Woody," becomes Dog First Class and gets pay and rations for serving as the base mascot. The dog even goes up in the planes with the men — for good luck.
One day, Mike is shot down. He and the dog survive and end up taking refuge in a home owned by Henrik, his son, and daughter-in-law. That's where Mike meets Ubi, a German corporal. He takes a prominent place in the rest of the novel.
There's a lot more to the plot of this beautifully-crafted novel. There are twists and turns to come, and the book's ending isn't predictable. The book's characters are well-developed and likable, and the dog's story is heartwarming.
"The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse" is published by Pantheon Books, 2017. It costs $25.95 in hardcover. You can also find it with the new books at the Craig branch of Moffat County Libraries.