Ah, this is one of my favorite books of all! Shute is a wonderful writer. His characters are quite ordinary and believable yet they are also extraordinary and wonderfully good. He gives me faith in humanity, in the world, and in the power of just calmly going about doing what needs to be done. Most people really are like this!
The narrative builds from a calm center and grows more and more compelling and urgent. His protagonist, a 70 year old British gentleman, goes fishing in the Jura in France in the spring early in WW2, and gets caught up in the overrun of France by the Germans. His trip home is delayed by the needs of a couple of English children his friends at the French hotel ask him to take back to England with him. He's so patient and good with the kids as things get more and more desperate on their trip and they're finally overtaken by the advancing German army. Along the way he has picked up more kids: Rose from the hotel, Pierre whose parents were killed on the road by a German bomb, Wilhelm who's being persecuted and stoned by French villagers because he speaks Dutch they've mistaken for German. People help them along the way and he's taken in by a French family he barely knows only to find out they are more connected than he realized. This really is the most heartbreaking and beautiful story!
Shute appeals to my geeky heart by getting every detail of the boats, planes, tanks, every physical detail, just exactly right. You can count 100% on whatever he says, in his wonderful aviation-engineer's way. This gives his tales a solidity, a truth about them, that is palpable. I love that so much about his stories. Whenever I read a book and they get some small fact wrong, some physical detail that I know isn't right, it just kills the whole thing for me and razes my carefully-suspended edifice of disbelief. Not only will Shute never do this to you, but you can learn a great deal that's interesting about sailing, flying, etc. from reading him.
I've read this book five or six times now and it gets better every time. I really hope Nevil Shute, who was well-beloved a generation ago in Britain and Australia, I really hope he gets the attention now in the US and the rest of the world that he deserves. Just one of the best storytellers ever!
If you want to check him out, try these titles: this one, "Pied Piper", "Round the Bend", "Trustee from the Toolroom", "No Highway", and "The Legacy" which was sold in the US under the title "A Town Like Alice". If you've read "On the Beach", the nuclear-holocaust one, realize that it's very uncharacteristic of him in a number of ways, and these others will be different in a vastly-better sort of way.