IT WOULD be hard to imagine a more appealing predicament than that which Mr. Shute has dramatized so skilfully in this novel. The place is France; the time, May and June 1940. The hero is a seventy-year-old Englishman, John Howard, the embodiment of courtesy and patience, who, since he can be of no use to England, has come to the Jura to enjoy a week’s fishing. Howard’s heart is troubling him. This may well be his last Spring on earth, and he means to enjoy every minute of its coming. But he has had only two days of fishing (they use a wet fly in the Jura) when the German invasion begins to rock France. Howard is asked by a distraught Englishwoman to shepherd her two children back to England. And so begins his long diagonal to the French coast — a journey by train, by R. A. F. camion, and at last by foot, in the course of which the weary and patient old gentleman becomes the Pied Piper for a pack of deserted, homeless youngsters.
In its essentials this is the English model of a war novel — firm in its understatement, clear and sympathetic in its heroism. The children are beautifully contrasted — Ronnie, the English boy, Pierre, the gray-faced little orphan, and Willem, whose Flemish accent only the other youngsters can decipher. With the old man they make a superb team — the eagerness, the innocence, and the exasperation of the very young serving; as a foil to the infinite patience and wisdom of old age. Since this is a war novel, the love story must leave a broken heart and the villain must be German. I myself should have been better pleased had the Gestapo never appeared. But aside from that I have nothing but praise for Mr. Shute.