A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice

Overview
A Town Like Alice is a novel by the British author Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute Norway was a popular British-Australian novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He used his full name in his engineering career, and 'Nevil Shute' as his pen name, in order to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.-...

 about a young Englishwoman in Malaya
British Malaya
British Malaya loosely described a set of states on the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore that were brought under British control between the 18th and the 20th centuries...

 during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 and in outback Australia post-war.

Written from the perspective of her Scottish solicitor and trustee, it tells the story of her time as a prisoner of war in Malaya, and her post-war life in a small outback community in Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, which she sets out to turn into 'a town like Alice', Alice Springs
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Alice Springs is the second largest town in the Northern Territory of Australia. Popularly known as "the Alice" or simply "Alice", Alice Springs is situated in the geographic centre of Australia near the southern border of the Northern Territory...

 in the Northern Territory
Northern Territory
The Northern Territory is a federal territory of Australia, occupying much of the centre of the mainland continent, as well as the central northern regions...

 of Australia.

It was first published in 1950 when Shute had newly settled in Australia.

The story falls broadly into three parts.

In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary
Secretary
A secretary, or administrative assistant, is a person whose work consists of supporting management, including executives, using a variety of project management, communication & organizational skills. These functions may be entirely carried out to assist one other employee or may be for the benefit...

 in a shoe
Shoe
A shoe is an item of footwear intended to protect and comfort the human foot while doing various activities. Shoes are also used as an item of decoration. The design of shoes has varied enormously through time and from culture to culture, with appearance originally being tied to function...

 factory, is informed by solicitor
Solicitor
Solicitors are lawyers who traditionally deal with any legal matter including conducting proceedings in courts. In the United Kingdom, a few Australian states and the Republic of Ireland, the legal profession is split between solicitors and barristers , and a lawyer will usually only hold one title...

 Noel Strachan that she has a vast inheritance from an uncle she never knew.
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Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
A Town Like Alice is a novel by the British author Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute Norway was a popular British-Australian novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He used his full name in his engineering career, and 'Nevil Shute' as his pen name, in order to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.-...

 about a young Englishwoman in Malaya
British Malaya
British Malaya loosely described a set of states on the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore that were brought under British control between the 18th and the 20th centuries...

 during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 and in outback Australia post-war.

Written from the perspective of her Scottish solicitor and trustee, it tells the story of her time as a prisoner of war in Malaya, and her post-war life in a small outback community in Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, which she sets out to turn into 'a town like Alice', Alice Springs
Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Alice Springs is the second largest town in the Northern Territory of Australia. Popularly known as "the Alice" or simply "Alice", Alice Springs is situated in the geographic centre of Australia near the southern border of the Northern Territory...

 in the Northern Territory
Northern Territory
The Northern Territory is a federal territory of Australia, occupying much of the centre of the mainland continent, as well as the central northern regions...

 of Australia.

It was first published in 1950 when Shute had newly settled in Australia.

Plot summary


The story falls broadly into three parts.

In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary
Secretary
A secretary, or administrative assistant, is a person whose work consists of supporting management, including executives, using a variety of project management, communication & organizational skills. These functions may be entirely carried out to assist one other employee or may be for the benefit...

 in a shoe
Shoe
A shoe is an item of footwear intended to protect and comfort the human foot while doing various activities. Shoes are also used as an item of decoration. The design of shoes has varied enormously through time and from culture to culture, with appearance originally being tied to function...

 factory, is informed by solicitor
Solicitor
Solicitors are lawyers who traditionally deal with any legal matter including conducting proceedings in courts. In the United Kingdom, a few Australian states and the Republic of Ireland, the legal profession is split between solicitors and barristers , and a lawyer will usually only hold one title...

 Noel Strachan that she has a vast inheritance 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 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
Water well
A water well is an excavation or structure created in the ground by digging, driving, boring or drilling to access groundwater in underground aquifers. The well water is drawn by an electric submersible pump, a trash pump, a vertical turbine pump, a handpump or a mechanical pump...

 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
British Malaya
British Malaya loosely described a set of states on the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore that were brought under British control between the 18th and the 20th centuries...

 at the time the Japanese invaded
Battle of Malaya
The Malayan Campaign was a campaign fought by Allied and Japanese forces in Malaya, from 8 December 1941 – 31 January 1942 during the Second World War. The campaign was dominated by land battles between British Commonwealth army units, and the Imperial Japanese Army...

 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, unused to physical labour, die. Jean meets a young Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a truck for the Japanese and they strike up a friendship. He steals food
Food
Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for the body. It is usually of plant or animal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals...

 and medicine
Medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

s 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.

The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is crucified, beaten 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
Queensland
Queensland is a state of Australia, occupying the north-eastern section of the mainland continent. It is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean...

 outback
Outback
The Outback is the vast, remote, arid area of Australia, term colloquially can refer to any lands outside the main urban areas. The term "the outback" is generally used to refer to locations that are comparatively more remote than those areas named "the bush".-Overview:The outback is home to a...

, 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 learnt that Jean survived the war and that she was never married. He has travelled to London to find her, using money won in a lottery
Lottery
A lottery is a form of gambling which involves the drawing of lots for a prize.Lottery is outlawed by some governments, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. It is common to find some degree of regulation of lottery by governments...

. It is some time before they are reunited in Australia and the attraction between them is immediately rekindled.

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 procures money from Jean's inheritance, she starts the workshop, followed by a string of other businesses; an icecream 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 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 and returns to England.

Characters

  • Jean Paget - a young Englishwoman who is a prisoner of war in Malaya and later finds love and settles in the Australian outback.
  • Joe Harman - an Australian cattleman who is a prisoner of war in Malaya; he survives crucifixion and gets back to Australia.
  • Noel Strachan - the narrator; he is Jean Paget's solicitor and trustee.

Themes


The protagonists share the attitudes of the time: Aborigines
Australian Aborigines
Australian Aborigines , also called Aboriginal Australians, from the latin ab originem , are people who are indigenous to most of the Australian continentthat is, to mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania...

 are referred to as "boongs" or "abos". It is also assumed that non-whites must use different shops and bars from whites and that they are less reliable than whites. But these attitudes are often presented not in a racistic, but an ironic sense: for example, the captive British women are completely lost, because the only Malayan words they have learned are orders for their Malayan servants, while Jean survives by use of her language skills and her willingness to live the Malayan way.

Another theme is the situation of women in Western and Asian society at that period. For example, Jean Paget is not given full control of the money she inherited from her uncle, but has her capital managed by male lawyers. Also the Malayan women are subject to their husbands. Jean Paget makes a move toward female emancipation by digging a well in a Malayan village, so that the women of this village no longer have to carry their water for two miles each day, and also have a meeting place next to the well where they can discuss village affairs without being heard by the male villagers. However, this must be done with the approval of the men.

A third theme is that of entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is the act of being an entrepreneur, which can be defined as "one who undertakes innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to transform innovations into economic goods". This may result in new organizations or may be part of revitalizing mature organizations in response...

, and especially the role that entrepreneurs may play in community building
Community building
Community building is a field of practices directed toward the creation or enhancement of community among individuals within a regional area or with a common interest...

. Instead of living on the income from her inheritance, Jean Paget puts it to good use to make Willstown a better place.
A fourth and allegorical theme is the gift and resurrection of the crucified Christ.

Historical accuracy


Jean Paget was based on Carry Geysel (Mrs J. G. Geysel-Vonck) whom Shute met while visiting Sumatra
Sumatra
Sumatra is an island in western Indonesia, westernmost of the Sunda Islands. It is the largest island entirely in Indonesia , and the sixth largest island in the world at 473,481 km2 with a population of 50,365,538...

 in 1949. Geysel had been one of a group of about 80 Dutch
Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

 civilians taken prisoner by Japanese forces at Padang
Padang, Indonesia
Padang is the capital and largest city of West Sumatra, Indonesia. It is located on the western coast of Sumatra at . It has an area of and a population of over 833,000 people at the 2010 Census.-History:...

, in the Dutch East Indies
Dutch East Indies
The Dutch East Indies was a Dutch colony that became modern Indonesia following World War II. It was formed from the nationalised colonies of the Dutch East India Company, which came under the administration of the Netherlands government in 1800....

 in 1942. Shute's understanding was that the women were forced to march around Sumatra for two-and-a-half years, covering 1900 kilometres (1,180.6 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
Ringer Edwards
Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards , was an Australian soldier during World War II. As a prisoner of war , he survived being crucified for 63 hours by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. Edwards was the basis for the character of "Joe Harman" in the 1950 Nevil Shute novel A Town Like Alice...

, an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign, whom Shute met in 1948 at a station
Station (Australian agriculture)
Station is the term for a large Australian landholding used for livestock production. It corresponds to the North American term ranch or South American estancia...

 (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
Last meal
The last meal is a customary part of a condemned prisoner's last day. Often, the day of, or before, the appointed time of execution, the prisoner receives a last meal, as well as religious rites, if they desire. In the United States, inmates generally may not ask for an alcoholic drink...

" of chicken and beer could not be obtained. Crucifixion
Crucifixion
Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead...

 (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 Burketown, Queensland
Burketown, Queensland
- Morning glory cloud :From the months of August to November, a rare meteorological phenomenon known as "Morning Glory" - long, tubular clouds, some up to 1000 km in length - is often observed in the skies above Burketown.....

 and Normanton, Queensland
Normanton, Queensland
-External links:****...

, which Shute also visited in 1948. (Burke and Wills
Burke and Wills expedition
In 1860–61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition of 19 men with the intention of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres...

 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.

Critiques and rankings


In 1998, the Modern Library
Modern Library
The Modern Library is a publishing company. Founded in 1917 by Albert Boni and Horace Liveright as an imprint of their publishing company Boni & Liveright, it was purchased in 1925 by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer...

 ranked the novel seventeenth on The Reader's List of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Cinema


The novel was adapted to film in 1956
1956 in film
The year 1956 in film involved some significant events.-Events:* October 5 - The Ten Commandments opens in cinemas and becomes one of the most successful and popular movies of all time, currently ranking 5th on the list of all time moneymakers * February 5 - First showing of documentary films by...

 as A Town Like Alice
A Town Like Alice (film)
A Town Like Alice is a 1956 British drama film, based on the novel by Nevil Shute and with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in the leading roles. The film does not follow the whole novel, concluding at the end of Part Two of the book, and many plot details are truncated or omitted...

. It starred Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna
Virginia A. McKenna OBE is a British stage and screen actress, author and wildlife campaigner.-Early career:McKenna trained as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama then worked on stage in London's West End theatres before making her motion picture debut in 1952...

 and Peter Finch
Peter Finch
Peter Finch was a British-born Australian actor. He is best remembered for his role as "crazed" television anchorman Howard Beale in the film Network, which earned him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Actor, his fifth Best Actor award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and a...

, directed by Jack Lee
Jack Lee (film director)
Jack Lee was a film director, writer, editor and producer.Wilfred John Raymond Lee was born in the village of Slad near Stroud in Gloucestershire...

. This film was known as Rape of Malaya in U.S. cinemas, and by various other titles in non-English-speaking countries.

Television


In 1981 it was adapted into a popular television miniseries
Miniseries
A miniseries , in a serial storytelling medium, is a television show production which tells a story in a limited number of episodes. The exact number is open to interpretation; however, they are usually limited to fewer than a whole season. The term "miniseries" is generally a North American term...

 called A Town Like Alice, starring Helen Morse
Helen Morse
Helen Morse is an Australian actress who has appeared in films, on television, and on stage.-Biography:Morse was born in Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, England. She was the oldest of four children; her parents were a doctor and nurse...

 and Bryan Brown
Bryan Brown
Bryan Neathway Brown, AM is an Australian actor.-Early life:Brown was born in Sydney, the son of John Brown and Molly Brown, a house cleaner who worked as a pianist in the early days of the Langshaw School of Ballet. He grew up in the south-western Sydney suburb of Bankstown and began working at...

 (with Gordon Jackson
Gordon Jackson (actor)
Gordon Cameron Jackson, OBE was a Scottish Emmy Award-winning actor best remembered for his roles as the butler Angus Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and George Cowley, the head of CI5, in The Professionals....

 as Noel Strachan). It was broadcast internationally, in the United States it was shown as part of the PBS
Public Broadcasting Service
The Public Broadcasting Service is an American non-profit public broadcasting television network with 354 member TV stations in the United States which hold collective ownership. Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia....

 series Masterpiece Theatre
Masterpiece Theatre
Masterpiece is a drama anthology television series produced by WGBH Boston. It premiered on Public Broadcasting Service on January 10, 1971, making it America's longest-running weekly prime time drama series. The series has presented numerous acclaimed British productions...

.

Radio


In 1997 a six part radio version of "A Town Like Alice" was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 starring Jason Connery
Jason Connery
Jason Joseph Connery is an English actor.-Early life:Connery grew up in London. He attended Millfield School, a co-educational independent school in Somerset, England, and later at the independent Gordonstoun School in Scotland. He was later accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School...

, Becky Hindley
Becky Hindley
Becky Hindley is an English television, stage and radio actress based in Lancaster, England. She is best known for her eight month stint in Coronation Street as Charlotte Hoyle in 2010; her performance as the deranged bunny boiler was met with praise by the soap's producer Phil Collinson and her...

, Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna
Virginia A. McKenna OBE is a British stage and screen actress, author and wildlife campaigner.-Early career:McKenna trained as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama then worked on stage in London's West End theatres before making her motion picture debut in 1952...

 and Bernard Hepton
Bernard Hepton
Bernard Hepton is a British actor of stage, film and television.Hepton is known as a particularly versatile character actor. He trained at Bradford Civic Theatre school under Esme Church along with actors such as Robert Stephens...

. It was dramatised by Moya O'Shea, produced by Tracey Neale and David Blount and directed by David Blount. It won a Sony Award in 1998.

See also


  • Margaret Dryburgh
    Margaret Dryburgh
    Margaret Dryburgh was born in Sunderland, England and trained as a teacher. She later became a missionary in Singapore, where she was captured in the Second World War. The plight of Dryburgh and her fellow inmates such as Betty Jeffrey in a Japanese prisoner of war camp inspired the 1996 film...

     - an English missionary held captive by the Japanese in World War II
  • Paradise Road - a film based on the female prisoners of war in Sumatra in World War II