A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is multi-layered expat novel, which was made into a TV mini-series in 1981.
It has been one of my favorites for a long time, not only because of the expat themes, but because it also features a strong female protagonist who overcomes some truly daunting obstacles.
Author Nevil Shute is interesting in his own right. A prolific author, with over 20 novels to his credit, Nevil Shute Norway was by profession an aeronautic engineer and pilot.
Shute became an expat himself. He was born in 1916 in London, and emigrated with his wife and daughters to Australia in 1950 following World War II. His books strongly reflect his love of airplanes and flying, and his adopted country. He died in Melbourne, Australia in 1960.
London, After World War II
The book is divided into three distinct sections: London just after World War II, Malaya during the War, and subsequently in Malaya and Australia.
When we first meet her, Jean Padgett is a young woman, living by herself in London after the end of World War II. She receives a letter from solicitor Noel Strachan who informs her that her uncle Douglas Macfadden has died, and that if she can prove she is his niece she may be entitled to part of his estate.
Jean meets with Mr. Strachan and discovers that Mr. Macfadden, whom she barely remembers, was reasonably well off and has left her his entire fortune. However, being a confirmed bachelor and not trusting a woman’s ability to handle her own financial affairs, Jean’s legacy is to be held in trust for her by Mr. Strachan and his partner until she reaches the age of 35.
During the War
Jean shares her history with Mr. Strachan over the next several months.
He learns that she lived as a young child in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), where her father worked in the rubber industry. Jean and her brother Donald learned to speak Malay, and their mother encouraged them to continue using the language even after they went to England to attend school. After finishing school, Donald got a job in Malaya, and Jean went to live there as well in 1939, working as a shorthand typist. War had broken out, but the family felt Jean would be safer in Malaya than in England.
However, Malaya was taken over by the Japanese.
Jean’s evacuation to Singapore was slowed down when she detoured to help a family with three young children, and she was captured by the Japanese along with others who had not made it out in time. The men and older boys were removed to a prisoner of war camp, but there were no accommodations for female prisoners or children.
Instead, the Japanese Captain ordered them to march, under guard, to Kuala Lumpur, from whence they would be transported to new prison camps being built in Singapore.
There was no prison camp for women, in Singapore or anywhere else, and the group was marched from one end of Malaya to the other.
After months of forced marches, near starvation and lack of medical attention, and during which two-thirds of the original number died, they found a safe haven in a small village. Their Japanese guard had fallen ill and died, and Jean persuaded the headman of the village to let them stay and help with the rice planting in exchange for food and shelter. They stayed there for three years, until the war ended.
At one point during their travels, the women and children had come across several Australian prisoners who were driving trucks for the Japanese. The men felt sorry for the women, and obtained some food and medicine for them. One of the men also stole several chickens for the women, and when the theft was discovered, he was punished so severely that he died while the women were forced to watch.
After the war, Jean returned to England, went to work for Pack & Levy, a firm that made high-end shoes and handbags, and tried to forget her war experiences. Her brother Donald had died while a prisoner of the Japanese, and their mother had also died.
After the Legacy
Jean leaves her job and goes to Malaya to dig a well as a way of thanking the village that sheltered her during the final three years of the war.
While chatting with the well diggers, Jean discovers that Joe Harman, the Australian prisoner who had stolen the chickens for them, had survived his ordeal and recovered after months in the hospital. She decides to travel on to Australia to see for herself how he is doing.
Jean and Joe are reunited, after a few twists and turns, and fall in love. Jean never does return to England but marries Joe.
After learning how girls from the small Outback town near the cattle ranch that Joe manages leave home and move to cities thousands of miles away because there is no work for them, Jean starts a business employing a few young women to make fancy alligator shoes and handbags like those she became familiar with while living and working for Pack & Levy in London.
This starts a snowball effect: instead of leaving for the cities, the girls who work for Jean stay in town, get married, and start families. They leave their jobs, and more girls come to work for Jean, which attracts more stockriders and other male workers to the town. Jean opens up an ice cream shop to give them someplace to spend their money. The shop employs a few more girls, attracting more men to the area, and giving Jean ideas for more businesses.
The town is gradually transformed from a dusty Outback hole to a vibrant little community, with plenty of entertainment for the young families. The initial source of all this growth is Jean’s inheritance, doled out to her in small pieces by Mr. Strachan according to the terms of his trusteeship.
Ironically, the Macfadden family money was earned by a grandfather, who worked in one of the “gold towns” of the Australian outback, towns which had boomed during the country’s gold rush, and then gone bust.
Fascinating to me is the fact that the middle portion of the story is based on a true circumstance, and the author explains in a note at the end that he expects to be “accused of falsifying history.” In fact, he states, the forced march of the women happened in Sumatra in 1942, not in Malaya. According to Shute:
A party of about eighty dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for thse women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.”
“In 1949 I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Geysel-Vonck … Mrs. Geysel had been a member of that party. … In the years that followed Mrs. Geysel marched over twelve hundred miles carrying her baby, in circumstances similar to those which I have described. She emerged from this fantastic ordea undaunted, and with her son fit and well.
“I do not think that I have ever before turned to real life for an incident in one of my novels. If I have done so now it is because I have been unable to rsist the appeal of this true story, and because I want to pay what tribute is within my power to the most gallant lady I have ever met.”
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