Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

A Town Like Alice

A review by John Henry

One of my two favorite Shute books is "A Town Like Alice" (A/K/A "The Legacy"). The other is "Ruined City" (AKA "Kindling"). I like both books for the same reason. Both tell the story of rather uncomplicated people, setting out to change a corner of the world and succeeding. Of course, that is the basic theme of many of Shute's books. I simply think these two are the best of them.

I first became familiar with "Alice" as a Masterpiece Theatre series presentation about 15 years ago. This 8 part series was made in Australia and starred Helen Morse and Bryan Brown. It is available on videotape at my local Blockbuster.

"Alice" reads well on a number of levels. Most people will see it as a love story, at least the first time. I did and I think that is why I initially fell in love with the book. It is a beautiful story of two people who meet during WWII in Maylasia where they are both prisoners of the Japanese.

It is also, to some extent a war story. It tells the tale of how the Japanese treated prisoners taken during the Malaysian campaign. In fact, when I saw it on Masterpiece Theatre, I thought that was all it was and didn't even finish watching the frst episode. The treatment was brutal in the extreme and I found it rather repugnant. I still have no idea why I tuned in the following week. I would hope that those reading the novel will get through this because it is important to the plot.

It is a story about economics. And I hope THAT doesn't scare anyone off. The economics is fairly well hidden and I must admit that it took me a number of reads before I discovered that.

And it is about hope and how it is within the power of a single person to make great and positive changes.

Basic plot:
Englishwoman Jean Paget is working in Malaya at the start of the war. She, along with a number of English women and children are taken prisoner by the Japanese. There are no prison camps for women and the Japanes do not know what to do with them. They march them hither and yon, each commandant passing them along to the next who does not want responsibility. Many die on the march. At one point, after the war, Jean is asked what it is like to be in a Japanese camp. Her reply was, that horrible as it was, it was far worse to not be in a camp.

Along the way, they meet a pair of Australian POW truck drivers who befriend them. One, Joe Harmon steals the Japanese Commandant's chickens for the women and is (Jean thinks) flogged to death.

Jean then befriends the chief of a native village and offers the services of the party as laborers in the rice fields. They wind up spending the rest of the war in this way.

After the war, Jean goes back to England to a very humdrum life as a secretary in a small shoe factory. She then inherits some money from a rich uncle (Thus the alternate title "The Legacy"). Her first thought is to fly out to Malaya and dig a well for the village which had sheltered them during the war.

While there, she finds out that Joe Harmon did not die from the flogging and decides to go to Australia to see if she can find him.

At the same time, Joe, who had thought Jean was married, finds out that she was not. He flies to England to look for her. We are left in some suspense as to whether they will get together or not.

In the event, they do. Joe manages a cattle station in the outback in a one horse town called Willstown. There is nothing to do there, it is difficult to find labor to work the station, nobody wants to stay, everyone wants to move to Alice Springs ("Alice") Alice is a "bonzer town" in the words of Joe Harmon. Population about 5,000, it is the biggest city in the area and offers stores, movies, swimming pools and, in general, civilization. In other words, everything that Willstown is not.

I'll not go into the hows of it, you can read the book for yourself, but she starts a small shoe factory in Willstown, this leads to an ice cream parlor, which leads to a hairdresser, which leads to a swimming pool/rec center etc. In short, she winds up making Willstown "A Town Like Alice".