An appreciation by Helen Yeomans
What on earth was Nevil Shute thinking when he spun this wonderful tale? Did he know it would be his last? Did he want to celebrate in miniature his first profession? Or was this work in the nature of a warm-up exercise for some meatier project?
Whatever the case, Trustee from the Toolroom is a rollicking good read from beginning to end, a paean to a modest man living a modest life doing the work he loves, and with more friends than he would ever dare to imagine. There's scarcely a dark cloud from start to finish; the pessimism of On the Beach and Requiem for a Wren is wholly absent here.
Keith and Katie Stewart live in a heavily mortgaged house in the London suburb of Ealing. Katie works at a department store while Keith makes tiny models of engines and clocks and other mechanical contrivances in his basement workshop, and writes about them for the magazine Miniature Mechanic. Into their childless life a 10-year-old niece, Janice, comes to stay while her parents sail halfway round the world to make a new life on Vancouver Island. But disaster strikes: the parents are drowned and their entire estate is lost, buried in the cement keel of a boat wrecked on an island in the south Pacific.
Armed with only a hundred pounds, one of his tiny models and Katie's advice ("You must buy a pith helmet"), Keith sets out to recover Janice's inheritance. Along the way, Trustee offers us the richest cast of characters of any of Shute's books: industrialist Chuck Ferris and his nymphomaniac daughter; lumber magnate Sol Hirzhorn and his family; literature professor and closet model maker Cyrus Shawn O'Leary; and Jack Donelly, the slow-witted lusty sailor seeking his mother's home in "the Islands."
If ever Nevil Shute's writing could be characterized as off the wall it is in this book. He comes perilously close to caricature in Jack, yet how skillfully he avoids it, giving us an endearing portrait of an obstinate, obtuse giant entranced with "Mr. Keats'" tiny invention.
There's a fascinating passage where Keith must decide whether to embark on the long journey from Hawaii to Tahiti in a small sailboat with this man, widely regarded as almost wholly witless. Put yourself in his position. How do you judge someone? How do you decide whether to put your life in his hands? Shute takes his time with the scene where they meet, and bit by bit, Donelly's character and Keith's reasoning are revealed. At the end, we may privately decide we'd never have taken the chance ourselves, but we can see nevertheless why Keith does.
Jack's unorthodox travel arrangements land them in deep trouble in Tahiti, but just when it seems as though Keith will never reach the shipwreck, an international network of Keith Stewart admirers mobilizes, helping him to complete his journey and begin the long trip home. But not without detours - in fact it's a toss up which is more entertaining: the journey out or the return.
Replete with details of model-making and basement workshops, Trustee from the Toolroom will delight the heart of anyone who has ever messed about with bits of wood or metal. Regardless of how much or little you know of model engineering (I know nothing), you're likely to come away from this book thinking, "God bless all engineers" - and perhaps that was all the legacy Shute wanted to leave.