Skip to main content

The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse

Review

The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse

Alexander McCall Smith, the bestselling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and several Scotland-based novellas, delights us with a new stand-alone novel. He writes about love and war, loss and hope, and unlikely friendships, tied together through a remarkable border collie named Peter Woodhouse. The story begins in 1944 rural England as American and Canadian troops are landing.

Val Eliot is a land girl working on a farm owned by a kindly middle-aged bachelor whose farmhands have marched off to war. The term “land girl” refers to the strong young women from cities and towns who work as farm laborers to grow much-needed food crops for their country. Val’s mother is the postmistress of the small nearby village and takes care of Willy, a pleasant but “slow” young man rejected for military duty. Willy is a dependable worker who lives on a sheep farm, tended by two border collies on the other side of the village. It is through Willy, who has given the frisky young dog his name, that our heroic title character enters the story. Willy smuggles Peter Woodhouse, who has been severely mistreated by his owner, onto the farm where Val works.

"It is a moving fable for our troubled times, but I believe that Smith offers it more than as a way to shine a light on an era that few readers may recall outside of history books."

When the American airmen arrive at the nearby airbase, Val soon meets Mike, a young reconnaissance pilot, and they eventually fall in love. Willy’s farmer boss discovers the location of his dog and goes to the police after accusing Val’s boss of stealing his property. It is decided that Peter Woodhouse will be safer at the airbase, and Mike takes him there, where he is immediately embraced as a mascot. Peter Woodhouse accompanies Mike on recon missions, and soon the other pilots start taking him on board when Mike is off duty.  The dog is considered a lucky charm and protected from discovery if a local comes looking. As the war slowly winds down in England, Mike flies further inland on increasingly dangerous missions over the Netherlands and Belgium as the Nazis retreat eastward. Val and Mike become engaged, and make plans to marry and move to America once Mike is released from service.

Smith’s tale takes us on daredevil missions, air strikes and near-tragedy in Belgium, where Mike, Peter Woodhouse and their navigator crash-land and encounter retreating Nazi troopers. Hidden by the Dutch, the two Americans and Peter Woodhouse are counted as missing in action for many months. Val now must pick up the pieces and move forward, a fine-tuned skill that the British have perfected by now.

This short book (247 pages) is in part a historical novel as told through Smith’s storytelling magic, following the main characters for many years as England slowly recovers and rebuilds. It is a moving fable for our troubled times, but I believe that Smith offers it more than as a way to shine a light on an era that few readers may recall outside of history books. His gentle, often humorous and philosophical approach to society as a whole reminds us of how resilient we humans can be when we make the attempt to look beyond what people seem to be, to who they really are.

However, THE GOOD PILOT PETER WOODHOUSE is not a soporific, feel-good tale. Evil abides, now as in the past, in ways palpable and dangerous. It is how we confront it, survive and stay human that will sustain us. I find it comforting to glance at its simply illustrated cover where it resides on my side table’s chair as I watch the flow of continual breaking news.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on April 13, 2018

The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse
by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humor
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 152474753X
  • ISBN-13: 9781524747534