H.E. Bates' 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I've ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)
The story begins with John Franklin's Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been "actively operational" for almost a year and isn't far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.
The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin's left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.
The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin's injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.
This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.
Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner's daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.
Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates' prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates' writing is so stripped back -- not one word is wasted -- that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.
Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.
Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his "best girl"] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!
There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament -- should he stay, or should he go -- the reader begins to fear for the pilot's survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?
This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others -- not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still -- made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.
Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year's end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.