Laurent, at fourteen, is a disappointment to his father so he is sent to supervise four younger children on holiday near Montpelier. A landslide traps the five kids in a house on the edge of a ravine. No one notices that they are missing for over a week. They have to use ingenuity to survive and try to escape.
The book is written in third person omniscient past tense and in a remarkably didactic form, even when giving dialogue. Here, for example, is Lauren (14) explaining to 6-year-old Daniel why the children won't be suffocated by the fumes in the next room: "The fumes will stay in a closed room, like water in the bottom of a basin. The gas is produced by burning wood and coal, and even by us when we breathe. Your body is, in fact, like a stove. Your lungs are a hearth that draws in clean air and throws off carbon dioxide. But here in this room there is nothing to worry about; I have left the rubbish-tip wide open and although it's not warm, we have fresh air." The six-year-old replies: "I see, thank you." (Ch 3) The book is full of practical things like this explaining how the children survive their predicament but the dialogue is farcically old-fashioned. And di Parisian parents really send their children off to stay over Christmas in a hotel by themselves as a character-building exercise for a young teenager?
I wasn't sold on the verisimilitude. The characters are well-drawn (especially naughty Bertille) but they all sound so much older than they are supposed to be. After a discussion about planting pine trees to prevent soil erosion, six-year-old Alexis observes, philosophically: "Some people demolish everything and others build it up again." (Ch 4)
But at the end, when Lauren says "You can tell Papa that the snail came out of its shell" I was sobbing. So even this matter-of-fact narration packed, for me, a punch.
I first read this in 1965, when I was 8.
July 2021; 126 pages