Fair Stood the Wind for France by H E Bates

WWII_18

This is one of those rare war novels actually written and published during the war, bringing with it that crackling sense of tension that can only be created by the author’s ignorance of when – or if – the conflict will end, and how much worse it will get before it does. It is also unusual for me as I have never read a war novel that is set in occupied France, and focuses on a British pilot trying to escape to freedom with the help of a French family. I found this take on the experience of living during WWII both enlightening and thrilling, and I was absolutely engrossed from the first page.

As the novel opens, John Franklin is flying over France with his crew on a now-routine journey back to base in England. Franklin is on autopilot; he has survived years of flying amidst the skies of Europe where enemies swarm like flies, and has seen many a friend disappear in a ball of flames. He knows what it is to feel terror, but surviving this long has given him a sense of immortality; he cannot conceive the possibility of his own death, and has even begun to find many of his flights rather mundane in their repetitive nature of trundling back and forth over familiar territory. So, when his plane malfunctions and he is forced to bring it down in a French field, Franklin and his crew find themselves in a situation they have been well trained for, though have never had to face. With no idea where they are or what they might be walking into, and with Franklin nursing a severely injured arm, the group of pilots are forced to take their chances on a remote farmhouse. There they find a young girl, her father, grandmother and the family’s hired man, who, due to their own wartime experiences, are eager to help. However, with the Germans on the prowl and Franklin’s condition growing more serious by the day, the pilots know they can’t afford to stay put for long.

Much to Franklin’s distress, his crew mates are forced to leave without him, and the family take on great risk by keeping him and obtaining medical help from the local town. Meanwhile, Franklin has grown to love the beautiful and pure young French girl who has a frank and unwavering certainty about everything she does, and the thought of placing her in danger tortures him. As the days go on, the situation gets progressively worse. The Germans harden their grip on the local community, plunging everyone into a state of fear. Franklin knows he must go, but disabled and cast adrift in the middle of unfamiliar territory, how will he be able to find his way across the border and back to England alone?

This is where things get really exciting, and I won’t say what happens, because it would ruin the adventure of reading it. The ending is wonderfully gasp inducing and the evocation of a war-battered, exhausted France is haunting and powerful. I found this perspective on the experience of war utterly fascinating, and the bravery of the French citizens in risking everything to support their comrades was awe inspiring. So many ordinary people did so many extraordinary things, without record and without recognition, and reading Fair Stood the Wind for France has given me a real desire to find out more about the experiences of civilians who risked their lives to fight against the enemy’s most sinister weapon; fear and intimidation of the wider populace. H E Bates might not be the most eloquent writer in the world (as a fan of lexical variety, his tendency to repeat the same phrases did grate on me ever so slightly), but this is such a fantastic story full of genuine suspense that it really is a must-read for those wanting to experience what it was to be at war.

17 comments

  1. Your book reviews are always so well written and engrossing that I find myself wanting to buy every book you read. I have done so on many occasions, and “Fair Wind” is no exception. It is now on order!

  2. I read this some time ago and enjoyed it, Rachel. Actually, I listened to it on audio, leaving my family wondering more than once why I was just sitting in the car (finish a chapter🙂 ). Wonderful review.

  3. This sounds fab- I’ll definitely give it a read in the school holidays! Have you read Suite Francaise? Its another book set in Occupied France in WW2 and was written as events unfolded and the writer had to escape from Paris. The novel is really amazing but unfinished; the writer was captured before she finished the book and it was only discovered in an attic years later by her daughters who decided to publish it. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!x

    1. I read Suite Francaise years ago when it first came out. I remember loving it but not much else. I’ve actually got loads of unread Irene Nemirovsky books on my shelves – you’ve reminded me that I need to get to them – thank you!

  4. So glad you enjoyed this one, Rachel! It’s a favourite of mine and I’m constantly pushing readers toward it at the library. Gasp-inducing is right! I’m just about to start All the Light We Cannot See which is Occupied France as well and it comes on the heels of Suite Francaise. Definitely a theme this summer.
    p.s. – LOVED The Echoing Grove…lots to mull over with that one!

    1. Oooh that sounds interesting, Darlene – I’ll have to check it out. I’m so glad you loved The Echoing Grove…have you read The Ballad and the Source? That’s similarly brilliant!

  5. A few years ago, I picked up Bates’s The Purple Plain at a used book sale. I had no idea what it would be about–I assumed it would be a “rustic” novel like his Love for Lydia. It was, however, nothing like that (I don’t think you’d even guess they were written by the same author); but, based on your review, it’s very similar to Fair Stood the a Wind: a pilot during WWII, still grieving the loss of his wife in the blitz, crashes in a remote region of Burma and must find his way back, traversing a hostile, arid climate with limited water while carrying his injured co-pilot. There’s also a romantic subplot involving a Burmese girl named Anna. Although I usually don’t go for action/adventure books, this one was so gripping and so well-written, I tore through it. I see I shall have to add Fair Stood the Wind to my TBR list now.

    1. That sounds fascinating, Deb – I haven’t heard of that one so I shall seek it out. Thank you! H E Bates certainly sounds like her wrote a huge variety of books…quite the literary chameleon!

  6. Emma mentioned Suite Francaise. I didn’t manage to finish that one, whereas I liked the Bates book enormously. So far as I can recall SF was more nuanced, reflecting the ambiguity of life under occupation. Bates offers a more black and white picture, in which it is clear who is good and who is bad. This, together with the love story element, is probably why I liked it so much.

    I suppose Bates would now be considered a popular writer or, at best, someone occupying the literary middle-ground (Richard and Judy territory?) between cheap entertainment and Booker-style critical acclaim. I do like this line from his Wikipedia entry: “In his home town of Rushden, H. E. Bates has a road named after him to the west of the town leading to the local leisure centre.”

    1. I love that line, David! Yes he seems a bit of a difficult one to categorise…I was really surprised to find out he was behind the Darling Buds of May. I can’t quite reconcile that with the writer of this…I’m interested to read something else by him now and see how it compares.

      1. If you want to see a completely different side of him, try Love for Lydia. As I said, you won’t believe he’s the same author who wrote Fair Stood the Wind.

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