Val Eliot is working on an English farm during the war when she meets Mike, a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed nearby. The two become close, and after Val rescues a border collie named Peter Woodhouse, who is being mistreated by his owner, she realizes the dog would actually be safer with Mike. Soon Peter Woodhouse settles into his new home on the air force base, and Val and Mike fall deeply in love. But when a disaster jeopardizes the future of them all, Peter Woodhouse brings Ubi, a German corporal, into their orbit, sparking a friendship that comes with great risk but carries with it the richest of rewards.
Infused with Alexander McCall Smith's renowned charm and warmth, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse is an uplifting story of love and the power of friendship to bring sworn enemies together.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels and of a number of other series and stand-alone books. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and have been best sellers throughout the world. He lives in Scotland.
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
❖ 1 ❖
The farmer taught her to avoid blisters by spitting on her hands.
He looked at her in that sideways manner of his, and she noticed that his nose had veins just visible under the skin, forked and meandering, like tiny rivulets marked on a map. She knew that she should not stare at his nose; she had been taught by her aunt that she should never pay attention to any obvious physical feature. People come in different shapes and sizes, Annie said. Don’t make it awkward for them.
She wrested her gaze away from the farmer’s nose and looked into his eyes, wondering what age he was. She was nineteen—twenty in a couple of months—and it was still difficult for her to judge the age of those even a decade older than she was. He was in his late fifties somewhere, she thought. His eyes, she noticed, were grey, and clear too; they were those of one who was used to the open, to wind and weather, to open spaces. They were a countryman’s eyes, accustomed to looking at things that were really important: sheep, cattle, the ploughed earth—things that a farmer saw, and understood. She spotted these things; she may not have had much formal education—she had left school at sixteen, as many did—but she saw things that other people failed to see, and she understood them. They said at school that she could have gone much further, as she was of above average intelligence—a “thoughtful, articulate girl,” the principal had written; “the sort of talent this country wastes so carelessly.” University, even, had been a possibility, but there had not been much money, and she had found the thought of going away was daunting.
“Spit on your hands, Val,” he said. “Like this, see.”
He spat on his right hand first, then the left. “Then you rub them together,” he continued. “Not too much, mind, or it won’t work. You try now. You show me.”
She smiled, and looked down at her hands. They were already dirty from salvaging hessian sacks in one of the barns to stack them ready for use—nothing was wasted these days, old string, rusty nails, scraps of wood—everything could be put to some use. Her hands were still soft, though, and he had noticed.
“You don’t mind if I call you Val?” asked the farmer. “It would be a bit of a mouthful to call you Miss . . .” He trailed away, looking momentarily embarrassed.
“Eliot. Miss Eliot. No, Val is who I am.”
“And you should call me Archie. Full name Archibald, of course, but nobody ever used that—apart from my mother. Mothers usually call their sons by their proper names. I knew a lad at school who was called Skinny by everybody—he was that thin—but his mother always called him Terence.” He shook his head at the memory. “Not much of a name, Terence, if you ask me. A town name, I’d say.”
She laughed. “My aunt sometimes calls me Valerie. Same thing, I suppose.” She paused. “So I should spit on my hands when I’m picking things?”
“Yes, if you like. But mostly when you’re using a spade. The handle can be hard on your hands. I’ve seen young lads get blisters the size of a half-crown from spades.”
She promised to be careful, and to remember to do as he said. There was so much to learn: she had been on the farm for only three days, and she had already learned eighteen things. She had written them all down in her land girl’s diary, each one numbered, with its explanation written in pencil. Eighteen new pieces of information as to how to work the land; about how to be a farmer.
They had been standing in the yard, directly outside the larger of the two barns. Now the farmer suggested that if she came to the farmhouse kitchen he would make tea for both of them. She should take a break every four hours, he said. “Take fifteen minutes to get your breath back. It’s more efficient that way—at least in the long run. A tired man . . . sorry, a tired girl too . . . gets less done than one who’s well rested. I’ve always said that. I told young Phil that. He was one for working all hours, but I told him not to.”
He had mentioned Phil on the first day. He had explained that he was his nephew, the son of his older brother, who had helped him on the farm for almost a year, and had gone off to join the army two months earlier. “He saw through Hitler,” he said. “Even when he was a nipper, fourteen, fifteen, he said ‘Hitler’s trouble.’ And he was right, wasn’t he? Spot on. Look where we are now. Hitler sitting in all those countries—France, Holland, them places—and if it hadn’t been for the Yanks coming in we’d be on our knees, begging for mercy.”
He had welcomed her, because with Phil gone he would not have been able to cope. The farm was not a large one—eighty-five acres—but it was intensively cultivated and it would have been too much for him to manage by himself. That was where the Women’s Land Army came in: they said they would send him one of their land girls, and they sent her, riding on her bicycle from the village six miles away. She lived there with her aunt Annie, the local postmistress. Archie knew Annie slightly, as the local postmistress was friendly with everybody. He must have seen Val about the place, too, but had not noticed her. He did not pay much attention to women and girls; he was a shy man, who had never married, and tended to feel awkward in female company. But he liked Val; on that very first day he had decided that here was a well brought up girl who knew her manners and was not going to be afraid of hard work. She would earn her two pounds four shillings a week, he thought. It was a decent wage if you did not have to give up some of it for board and lodging—and he assumed she did not have to pay Annie for lodging, although she probably contributed something for her food. She might even be able to save—if she stayed the course, which he had a feeling she would do. If they had sent him somebody from town, it could be a very different story. He knew somebody who had been allocated a land girl from London and she barely knew that milk came from cows; there was no work in her, he had been told, just complaints about mud and requests for time off every other day. He would not have a girl like that about the place; he would refuse, and they couldn’t make him take her, even with their powers to tell you to do this and that, as if the Ministry of Agriculture knew how to run a farm.
“So, Val Eliot,” he said as he poured her mug of tea. “Tell me a little more about yourself. Where are your mum and dad?” He immediately regretted the question. He should not have asked her that, and he became flustered.
He was relieved that she did not seem upset. “My dad went to Australia,” she said. “That was twelve years ago, when I was seven. My mum died five years ago.”
Well, at least she was not an orphan; that would have made his question all the more tactless. “I’m sorry about your mum,” he said.
“My aunt is her sister,” said Val. “She took me in. My dad sends money, sometimes, or did until last year, when I turned eighteen. But my aunt was all right with that. She says that my dad isn’t a bad man; he’s just not the sort to settle down. He moved around in Australia. He’s a roofer. They have a lot of tin roofs out there.” She paused. “You want to see a photograph of them? Of my mum and dad?”
He nodded, and she crossed the kitchen to the peg where he had told her she could hang the jacket and scarf she wore when cycling from the village. She took out a purse, and extracted from it a small photograph. The photograph had been posted onto a card for protection.
“That’s them,” she said. “Before he left for Australia.”
He looked at the picture of the man and woman standing outside a shop front. They were holding hands, dressed in their Sunday best, the man with one of those stiff, uncomfortable collars, the woman with a blouse that buttoned up to her neck.
“She has a kind face,” he said. “I like her smile.”
“My aunt says that my mum always smiled. All the time. She said that even when she felt low about something, she still smiled.”
“That’s the attitude,” said Archie. “No use being down in the dumps. That never makes anything any easier.”
“I think that too,” she said.
Archie looked at her with admiration. If he had ever had a daughter, she would be something like this girl, he thought.
That fellow who went off to Australia—he didn’t deserve a daughter like this.
She was still working at six, when Archie told her she could stop.
“You should be getting home now,” he said. “Lots of light still, but you’ll be needing your tea.”
She stood up, brushing the earth from her fingers. She had been weeding a line of cabbages and her knees and her back were sore from the bending.
“I don’t have a watch,” she said. “It broke.”
He smiled. “No need for watches on a farm. There’s the sun. It comes up and you know that’s morning. Goes down and you know it’s night. Simple, really.”
He walked back with her towards the farmhouse. While she collected her scarf and coat, he made his way into a shed and emerged with a basket.
“I’ve got three eggs here for you,” he said. “Fresh today. The hens are laying well. I think they like you.”
She had fed the hens that morning, and they had pecked and fluttered about her feet, desperate for the grain; silly creatures, she thought, with their fussing and clucking about nothing very much. Now she peered into the basket; he had wrapped each egg in a twist of newspaper, but she could see they were of a generous size. The ration was one egg a week for each person, and here were three.
“You’re very kind,” she said, taking the basket. “I’ll bring the basket back tomorrow.”
He nodded. “You say hello to your aunt from me.”
“And ride carefully down that lane. Those trucks from the base sometimes come this way and they don’t know how to drive, half of them.”
“I’ll be careful.”
It took her forty minutes to reach the village. There were no cars—not a single one—and no trucks. This was deep England, far away from any big town, a self-contained world of secret, hedge-marked fields and short distances. Wheeling her bicycle into the back yard, she leaned it against the wall of the shed. Then she went inside, the eggs her trophy, proudly held before her.
Annie kissed her. “Clever girl,” she said. “You must be working hard for him to treat you to those.”
“He’s a kind man, Auntie.”
Annie agreed. “Everyone speaks highly of Archie Wilkinson.” She began to unwrap the eggs. “They say he wanted to get married but never did. Too much work to do. Never got away from that farm of his.” She paused. “It could still happen, of course. But look at these eggs: lovely brown shells. Look.”
Val examined one of the eggs. “Made so perfectly, aren’t they? So smooth.”
“One each,” said Annie. “Coddled? A coddled egg is hard to beat.”
Val nodded. “Is Willy in yet?”
Willy was a relative—a distant connection by marriage—who had been staying with Annie for the last year. He was working on the land, too, although the farm to which he had been sent, a farm that belonged to a man called Ted Butters, was further away, and by all accounts very different from Archie’s place. Not that they heard much about it from Willy, who was not very bright and forgot things easily. He was two years older than Val and had never been able to have a proper job. He had come to live with Annie when he had been sent to work on the farm, which was more or less all he could do.
“There’s no danger of the army coming for Willy,” Annie had observed. “Poor boy, but at least he’s not going to have to put on a uniform. He’d never cope with army life.”
Val got on well with Willy—it would be hard not to. She liked his openness, and his innocent, generous smile. “He’s very gentle,” she said to a friend who enquired about the rather ungainly young man she had seen coming out of the post office. “Willy wouldn’t hurt a fly. But there’s not much he can do, really. He can pick potatoes and things like that, and precious little else.”
Now Annie said, “Willy will like this egg. He loves eggs, doesn’t he? I bet that farmer up there will not be giving him much. Mean piece of work.”
Half an hour later they sat down at the kitchen table. Annie served the coddled eggs with pieces of bread on which she had scraped a thin layer of dripping.
“This is a real feast,” said Val.
Willy beamed with pleasure. “I like eggs,” he said. “Always have.”
Val washed up, with the wireless on in the background. She listened to the announcer with his grave, clipped voice. Bad news given in measured tones could even sound reassuring. Willy, of course, only half grasped what was happening. “The desert’s very dry,” he remarked. “Where do they get the water for the tanks?”
“Oases,” said Annie. It suddenly occurred to her that he might be thinking of water tanks, rather than armoured tanks. “But don’t you worry about that, Willy.”
Reading Group Guide
This guide is designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in this book and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. Feel free to wander in your discussions, and use this as a guideline only!
1. When it comes to the dogs on the farm, Annie says Willy has “a strong sense of right and wrong” (p. 27). But Willy first hits Ted Butters and then steals Peter Woodhouse. Do you think this defensible given that Butters was beating the dogs?
2. Archie plays several roles in Val’s life. Boss, willing accomplice, teacher, father figure. Which roles are most important for Val? What other roles does he play?
3. “People clutched at everything—any scrap of comfort they encountered” (p. 32). Val was considering people’s desperation for the war to end. Have you ever been in a situation where you seized on every bit of hope?
4. When Val meets Mike for the first time, they send three dozen eggs smashing into the ground but have an instant attraction for one another. Do you believe in true love? Or that some people are destined to be together?
5. “She thought that was why they used the expression falling in love, because it was sudden, and unexpected, as a fall is, and it was very much the same feeling, of sudden powerlessness as gravity took hold of you, as love does; love and gravity were very similar: equally strong, equally irresistible” (p. 33). How does this thought apply to the rest of the story?
6. All of the time Mike and Val have together has to be snatched away from work and duty. Do you think that it because it is wartime? Would normal couples have to work so hard to spend time together? Does this strengthen their relationship? If not for the war, do you think Mike and Val would have the same emotions?
7. Mike and his navigator crash in a field in Holland with Peter Woodhouse. While they are all unhurt, they are in enemy-held territory. Why do you think Mike has so much certainty that all will be ok?
8. Ubi takes a great risk by allowing Mike and the navigator to stay in the attic. Why do you think he does so?
9. Mike’s MIA status is devastating to Val. Sergeant Lisowski tells her: “I’d say you could have a tiny bit of hope. A glimmer. But not much more than that” (p. 84). What would cause him to allow her to hope when he knows there may be none?
10. When Val tells Willy she’s pregnant he offers to marry her. “There would have been raised eyebrows, as many people would think that a woman should not take up with a man who was not quite all there” (p. 121). Do you think Val is being fair to Willy? What changes her opinion of this situation during the telling of the story?
11. “When I’m up there, sir, up above the clouds, I just feel . . . well, I feel that I’m in the right place—for me, that is. That’s where I have to be” (p.125). Mike is describing why he wants to keep flying. How do you think Val would feel if she heard him say so?
12. Ubi thinks about the situation he is in as a prisoner of war. While the Russians are viewed as angry and full of retribution (including stories of cannibalism), the Western Allies forces (Canadian and American), are viewed as more kind, or at least disinterested. Why is there such a discrepancy between the ways different countries treated the POWs?
13. When Ubi is about to be transferred, the Canadians burned his clothing. “It was his past that was in flames, he thought, and he was grateful. He was cleansed” (p. 139). Is surviving a war so easy to get over? What should Ubi feel guilty about, if anything?
14. Of all of the German men returning home, why does Ilse pick Ubi to offer a job? How does that save both of them?
15. Ubi goes to Berlin to find his nephew but ends up being caught behind the blockade. He is forced to stay, away from Ilse, for a few years. Mike ends up staying in the air force, in Germany, much of the time away from Val. In what other ways do the lives of these men and women parallel?
16. An article is published about Peter Woodhouse after he retires from the air force. What are the consequences of this human interest story?
17. Mike and Ubi meet again in Templehof. Why does Mike agree to help Ubi and Klaus?
18. Ubi writes to Val on hearing of Mike’s death, but it is Ilse who ends up being Val’s pen friend. What do the two woman share?
19. Mike’s, Ubi’s, and even Peter Woodhouse’s deaths are not represented in the book, simply mentioned in the course of the story. Why does the author choose this method of telling the reader?
20. Why does Val marry Willy after Mike’s death?
21. “Love grows stronger. Love lasts a lifetime, and beyond” (p. 247). Do you agree with this sentiment?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed this book for all the usual reasons: well written , well plotted, good research . Add to it the beautifully expressed emotional characterization and you have the author at his finest.
I've read everything by Alexander McCall Smith, and his charming random storytelling works with his serial characters, but it works less well with this story about encounters between British, German, Dutch, and Americans in WWII and after. Still, his charming prose style keeps the book readable and enjoyable to the end.
As a devoted follower of Alexander McCall Smith's writings, Peter Woodhouse was concise, thoughtful and faithful to the characters portrayed. The subject matter gave me pause as I had not thought much about the effect of WW2 on the German people themselves and the conditions that they experienced both during the war and the aftermath. I have learned to look for the twists, turns and surprises that are scattered through his novels They were present and provided speculation, probing, musings or even outright laughter on some occasions. I am never able to put them down and yet regret their coming to an end. Such mixed emotions!! Why can't it go on? Already looking for the next writing. Never disappointed!
“The vicar’s cracked shoes projected from under his white cassock, the hem of which was frayed, as everything was after five years of war and the shortages that war brought. There was even a smell to parsimony, some said: a thin, musty smell of things used beyond their natural life, of materials patched up, cobbled together, persuaded to do whatever it was they did well after they should have been retired. And it was true of people too – with both young men and young women in uniform, those left behind to do the day-to-day jobs seemed tired, overworked, made to carry on with their duties well after they should have been pensioned off. And now the vicar looked up at his small congregation and took a deep breath, as if summoning up for the task ahead what little energy he had left.” The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse is a stand-alone novel by popular British author, Alexander McCall-Smith. Nineteen-year-old Val Eliot is a Land Girl, who lives with the village Postmistress, her Aunt Annie. She’s assigned to Archie Wilkinson and working hard on his farm to help the war effort. The Americans at the nearby airbase need more eggs, so Val delivers them on her bike and, over three dozen accidentally smashed eggs, she meets an American pilot whose name, no, is not Peter Woodhouse, but Mike Rogers. Romance follows. Meanwhile, Val’s distant cousin, Willy Birks, also staying at Annie’s house, is working at the farm owned by Ted Butters. Willy may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he loves animals and hates the way Ted Butters treats his. One afternoon he arrives home with a badly beaten young sheepdog, Peter Woodhouse, so named for a delightful reason not revealed here so will require reading this charming wartime romance. Because that’s just the beginning. There’s a plane crash and a pregnancy and some brave and helpful cloggies and a German corporal who hates the war. There’s the Berlin blockade and the rescue of a good man and his nephew, and plenty more. And throughout, there’s McCall Smith’s gentle philosophy and his charming characters and his evocative descriptive prose, as follows. “The towel was clean and smelled of something he could not quite place. And then he remembered: it was lavender. It was one of the familiar smells that had simply gone from his memory, replaced by the overpowering smells of war: smoke, burning rubber, the stink of putrefaction. There was even a smell for fear – a sharp, uneasy tang that was something to do with the sweat of frightened men. And now the smell of lavender came back to him, and as he pressed the towel to his face he felt the urge to weep.” There’s every chance that Alexander McCall Smith could insert some gentle philosophy into his grocery list and make it just as delightful to read as this novel. Enjoyable and entertaining, as always.
More poignancy, less humor than most of his other books.