The father (though whom the third-person narrator sees things) has one son, Paul, by an earlier marriage, and a slightly younger son Julien by his second wife. The two sons could hardly be more different from each other: Paul is a money-making grab-all who lives with his wife Micheline in Lons-le-Saunier (Jura), the same town as the mother and the father, and Paul more or less openly trades with the German occupiers; Julian, however, cares more for art than money and has deserted from the Vichy-controlled French army and is therefore a wanted man.
The central story involves the ex-baker father first in his relationship with the mother, secretly collecting his nub ends to re-roll as shortages are the order of the day; seeking out wood to heat their house; and tending his beloved garden. Life, especially in a war economy, is already difficult without the added burden of age to contend with. So of course worries predominate, including worries about where Julien is.
And then, in a slightly surreal secret homecoming, Julien re-appears at the parents' house with a skeleton he uses as an artist's model. He sees nothing unusual in this, especially as carrying the skeleton on a train is so obviously drawing attention to himself that no one can possibly think he's a member of the Resistance, can they? Perhaps not, but then the Nazis thought nothing of killing the mentallly disturbed, but fortunately this issue doesn't come into it. The main question, though, is what to do with Julien as he can't stay in a small town, especially without identity papers or food tickets. Their neighbour M. Robin has previously advised that they have a word with Vaintrenier, who tells Julien that he has the choice between joining the Resistance or opting for anonymity in a large town: he chooses to go to Lyon where he has friends, and Vaintrenier provides him with a false name, false card, and food coupons.
And so the story continues, with Julien marrying the delightful communist's daughter Françoise, the mother dying, the father enjoying a brief new lease of life, the repulsive Paul and Micheline treating the father appallingly, taking all his possessions from him, and, well, we knew more or less how it would end. This is my first Bernard Clavel book, and it certainly won't be the last. It may read in many parts like a nineteenth century novel, but this is a twentieth century update, and its principal interest is with its sympathy for the working class, for the downtrodden.