Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


Donald Ross

By: Fred Erisman
Texas Christian University

Discussions of "An Old Captivity" routinely emphasize either the inlaid dream sequence and its ties to Nevil Shute's interest in metempsychosis, or the low-key romance that culminates in what Julian Smith condescendingly calls "a great orchestra of unheard violins." None, so far, adequately calls attention to Donald Ross, the unassuming young man who is so critical to the larger issues of the story.

We first meet Ross as an older person - a tall, lean man in his mid - to late thirties who, as a Senior Master pilot with Imperial Airways, is securely established at the top of his profession. Temporarily stranded aboard a stalled French train in the Jura Mountains, he falls into dinner-table conversation with a psychiatrist, Dr. Morgan, and, relaxed by wine and isolation, spins out the tale in which he plays so vital a role.

Born in 1905 and of Scots-Irish descent, Ross is orphaned by the deaths of his father in 1915 and of his mother in 1918. He is reared and schooled until 1924 by his aunt, Janet Ross, a spinster teacher of mathematics, and then enlists in the Royal Air Force for a five-year term of duty. The RAF teaches him to fly, commissions him as a pilot officer, and sends him for duty in Egypt and Iraq. When he is mustered out in 1929, he emigrates to Canada, works four years as a bush pilot, and returns to England only when his employer fails in the Depression. In England, after two months out of work, he is hired to fly an archeologist and his daughter, Cyril and Alix Lockwood, on a research trip to a presumed Viking site in Greenland. Exhausted by the responsibilities of the journey and agonizing over his growing affection for Alix, he dreams of a prior existence as a captive of the Vikings, and, at book's end, discovers hard evidence that the dream may, indeed, have recorded actual events.

The character of Ross enables Shute to explore two of his favorite themes: the significance of work and the importance of competence. The story, in great part, is driven by Ross's need to find work: first in the RAF, next in Canada, finally in England of 1933. As he tells Alix Lockwood, he flies airplanes for a living, and is at present out of a job; it is the act of work that is important to him, not the money that it may win him. In this simple exchange, Shute establishes an idea that recurs again and again -- work, whether one is a commercial pilot, a crippled barrister, an Aussie ringer, or a Seattle timber baron, is good and important in its own right. (In "The Ruined City", the town of Sharples honors Henry Warren because "He gave us work.") Work provides a living, to be sure, but it also makes the individual an integrated, contributing part of the larger society. Thus, it supplies both money and identity for the worker, and the society benefits as much as the person.

That work, however, is noteworthy only if one is competent at it, for Shute believes implicitly in the necessity of being good at what one does. Sir David Lockwood, a wealthy industrialist, considers Ross to be "modest, probably competent to maintain things mechanical, probably honest and hardworking," but even this canny businessman falls short in his estimate of Ross's ability. With organizational experience in the RAF, cold-weather experience in Canada, and responsibility instilled by Aunt Janet, Ross is uniquely equipped to make the Lockwood expedition a success. And he is determined that it will be a success. When Alix observes that things so fragile as airplanes are bound to have accidents, he replies, bluntly, "Mine don't." He then goes on to state what might well be Nevil Shute's credo of life: "Accidents happen because men are foolish, and reckless, and negligent, and lazy. Sometimes because there isn't enough money for what they want to do. One crash in a hundred may have been because God willed it so. Not more than that. . . . Sir David has seen that we've got enough money for this trip. If God has set his mind on it, we shall have a crash. Apart from that, my job here is to see we don't, and we're not going to."

The world has, to be sure, a degree of randomness in it. It is a small degree, however, and dwindles even more in the face of a determined, capable, and responsible individual. Thus, for Shute, hard, conscientious, and comprehensive attention to one's work will overcome virtually any obstacle that life may produce. Donald Ross sees his task through to completion, despite the costs to himself, and wins professional security as a result. He is Nevil Shute's characteristic hero, and he offers a model and a lesson to us all, whatever the vocational realm we claim as our own.