Fair Stood the Wind For France – H.E. Bates

A shortish (but slow-reading) novel about a downed RAF pilot and his crew during WWII and what happens when their plane crashes in Occupied France. This is really a book to savor, as opposed to whip through, as the descriptions are dense and the action spread out. There is a lot of description (which I think Bates excels at): of nature, of people’s appearances and characters, of the world around them.

The downed pilot, John Franklin, and his crew, find an isolated farmhouse and stay there whilst injuries are healed, developing friendships with the farmer and his family while also being acutely aware of the danger they are putting the civilians in through them giving them shelter. Franklin ends up having to stay longer than the rest of his crew, and falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, and together, they travel across Occupied France hoping to escape undetected through Marseilles.

However, Bates is so effective at throwing unexpected obstacles in the way of the travelers, and of unpredictable events that the story, although not that action-oriented, is still breath-takingly exciting at times. And the end of the book is in the same vein in that it is open-ended. Do the young couple make it England safely? Very little about the plot is predictable (which I adore) so this was really a good read.

This was a book to read carefully and in non-intrusive surroundings (quiet etc.). I am not a reader who can read effectively with a lot of noise or distractions around, but if you should find yourself with some quiet time, you would do well to immerse yourself in this.

I have heard that some find this novel a bit dated (and yes, it is true to its time), but a good story is a good story, I think. And this one worked for me.

Reading this reminded me of other British authors who excel at description: Laurel Lee, Flora Thompson, E. M. Delafield et al. The actual stories themselves are not that exciting, but the descriptions of the people and the surroundings take them to another level.

The author was born and grew up in Northamptonshire, a hop, skip and a jump away from where I grew up, and he stayed in that area for most of his life. Bates was commissioned into the RAF during WWII specifically to write short stories about the people who were fighting the war (more than just the facts and figures), and his stories were originally published in a column in a newspaper; Fair Stood the Wind For France was his first financial success.

Will be on the lookout for more Bates in the future.

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