History: This book was first published in 1950 when Shute had newly settled in Australia. Jean Paget was based on Carry Geysel (Mrs J. G. Geysel-Vonck) whom Shute met while visiting Sumatra in 1949. Geysel had been one of a group of about 80 Dutch civilians taken prisoner by Japanese forces at Padang, in the Dutch East Indies in 1942. Shute's understanding was that the women were forced to march around Sumatra for two-and-a-half years, covering 1,900 kilometres (1,200 mi), with fewer than 30 people surviving the march. However, the Nevil Shute foundation insists that this was a misunderstanding, and that the women were merely transported from prison camp to prison camp by the Japanese. "Shute, fortunately misinformed about parts of her experience, mistakenly understands that the women were made to walk. This was possibly the luckiest misunderstanding of his life..." says the Foundation.Shute based the character of Harman on Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign, whom Shute met in 1948 at a station (ranch) in Queensland. Edwards had been crucified for 63 hours by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. He had later escaped execution a second time, when his "last meal" of chicken and beer could not be obtained. Crucifixion (or Haritsuke) was a form of punishment or torture that the Japanese sometimes used against prisoners during the war.
The fictional "Willstown" is reportedly based on Burke town, Queensland and Normanton, Queensland, which Shute also visited in 1948. (Burke and Wills were well-known explorers of Australia.)
In a note to the text, Shute makes it known to the reader that a forced march of women by the Japanese did indeed take place during World War II, but the women in question were Dutch, not British, and the march was in Sumatra, not Malaya.
Plot: The story falls broadly into three parts.
In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary in a leather-goods factory, is informed by solicitor Noel Strachan that she has inherited a considerable sum of money from an uncle she never knew. But the solicitor is now her trustee and she only has the use of the income until she inherits absolutely, at the age of thirty-five, several years in the future. In the firm's interest, but increasingly for his own personal interest, Strachan acts as her guide and advisor. Jean decides that her priority is to build a well in a Malayan village.
The second part of the story flashes back to Jean's experiences during the War, when she was working in Malaya at the time the Japanese invaded and was taken prisoner together with a group of women and children.
As she speaks Malay fluently, Jean takes a leading role in the group of prisoners. The Japanese refuse all responsibility for the group and march them from one village to another. Many of them, not used to physical labour, die. Jean meets a young Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a truck for the Japanese and they strike up a friendship. He steals food and medicines to help them. Jean is carrying a toddler, whose mother has died, and this leads Harman to believe that she is married; to avoid complications, Jean does not correct this assumption.
On one occasion, Harman steals six chickens from the local Japanese commander. The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is beaten, crucified, and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The women are marched away, believing that he is dead.
When their sole Japanese guard dies, the women become part of a Malayan village community. They live and work there for three years, until the war ends and they are repatriated.
Now a wealthy woman (at least on paper), Jean decides she wants to build a well for the village so that the women will not have to walk so far to collect water: "A gift by women, for women".
Strachan arranges for her to travel to Malaya, where she goes back to the village and persuades the headman to allow her to build the well. While it is being built, she discovers that, by a strange chance, Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia. She decides to travel on to Australia to find him. On her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe has become manager of a cattle station. She soon discovers that the quality of life in 'Alice' is an anomaly, and life for a woman in the outback is elsewhere very rugged. Willstown is described as 'a fair cow'.
Meanwhile, Joe has met a pilot who helped repatriate the women, from whom he learns that Jean survived the war and that she was never married. He travels to London to find her, using money won in lottery. He finds his way to Strachan's office, but is told that she has gone traveling in the Far East. Disappointed, he gets drunk and is arrested, but is bailed out by Strachan. Without revealing Jean's actual whereabouts, Strachan persuades Joe to return home by ship and intimates that he may well receive a great surprise there.
While staying in Willstown, awaiting Joe's return, Jean learns that most young girls have to leave the town to find work in the bigger cities. Having worked with a firm in England that produced crocodile- leather luxury goods, she gets the idea of founding a local workshop to make shoes from the skins of crocodiles hunted in the outback. With the help of Joe and of Noel Strachan, who releases money from her inheritance, she starts the workshop, followed by a string of other businesses; an ice-cream parlour, a public swimming pool and shops.
The third part of the book shows how Jean's entrepreneurship gives a decisive economic impact to develop Willstown into "a town like Alice"; also Jean's help in rescuing an injured stockman, which breaks down many local barriers.
The story closes a few years later, with an aged Noel Strachan visiting Willstown to see what has been done with the money he has given Jean to invest. He reveals that the money which Jean inherited was originally made in an Australian gold rush, and he is satisfied to see the money returning to the site of its making.
Jean and Joe name their second son Noel, and ask Strachan to be his godfather. They invite Noel to make his home with them in Australia, but he declines the invitation, returns to England and the novel closes.
Review: 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.
Opening Line: “James McFadden died in March, 1905 when he was forty-seven years old.”
Closing Line: “I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging, and blackstock riders, of Cairns, and of Green Island, of a girl I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.”
Quotes: “She looked at him in wonder. "Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done."
"That's as it may be," he replied. "The fact is, that you did it.”
Rating: Excellent Reading!!!