I’ve probably seen the movie version of A Town Like Alice at least ten times. It was one of those movies my mom would put on during a rainy Saturday afternoon, like Anne of Green Gables or the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice. She liked to watch these shows, and we liked watching them with her, sometimes. We’d often catch parts of them, in between piano practice and playing with Barbies.
However, I had never read A Town Like Alice (1950) by Nevil Shute until a few weeks ago. I wanted to know where the movie had come from, as books are usually better than movies, and I had forgotten much of the plot. The book was a delightful read, and I’d suggest it as a perfect summer beach read if you are so inclined. It also happens to be number 96 on the BBC book list, which I am trying to read all of but haven’t visited for a while.
The story is about Miss Jean Paget, from England, but who finds herself among the English women in Malaya when World War II breaks out. The group is captured by the Japanese and forced to march all over the country. Wherever the women and their children go, the Japanese commander in charge turns them away and gives them new marching orders. This is the part of the story I remembered from the movie.
Jean ends up becoming a leader of the group, in which many women and children die of disease and exhaustion. She finally convinces a village to take the group in, with the permission of the Japanese, to work in the rice paddies. Her ability to broker this deal and her bravery becomes legend. She uses a religious scripture to convince the village chief to accept her deal. “Men’s souls are naturally inclined to covetousness; but if ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do” (p. 60).
Before they settle in this village, they meet up with two Australians captured by the Japanese. One of them, Joe Harman, takes a liking to Jean (although he believes she is a married woman; she isn’t) and steals some chickens for her and the group. He is caught and literally crucified.
Jean returns to England, where the narrator actually begins. He is an older gentleman who is her solicitor, for she has inherited money from a long lost uncle. She confides in the solicitor, and tells him her story, even the part about Joe Harman being killed on a cross. She then uses her money to return to the village where she worked in the rice paddies to dig a well and build the women a wash house. While there, she learns that Joe Harman did not, in fact, die. She heads to Australia to find him.
Meanwhile, Joe has learned, around the same time, that Jean was never a married woman, and he travels to England to find her. He meets up with her solicitor only to find out that she is away. Of course, this turn of events creates tension and conflict for the reader, but they eventually cross paths and meet again. It is a sweet love story, one that is romantic and full of anticipation.
The rest of the story focuses on their romance, and Jean’s ability to live in the tiny outback Australian town where Joe has made his living. It is a nothing town, a horrible place for a woman, but Jean is able to use her money to create businesses and grow the town, employing young women and keeping them there for the men who work the cattle stations. While there, they have some exciting adventures, and in the end, they are a happy and loving couple. I really enjoyed the read.
As hinted earlier, there is some discussion of gender relations and inequality. In war, the women experience much of the pain of being women because of their circumstances, and in the villages they visit, they see how the Malayan women are often treated. When Jean returns to build the well for the village, she must convince the chief to also include a wash house for the women, who are eager for it and tell Jean that the men always get the best of everything. They were anxious to get something of their own. Jean also suffers from some wrongheaded ideas about women, for her uncle’s stipulation of her inheritance was that she not control the money until she turned 35. He had first left the money to her mother and then her brother, but because they were both dead by the time her uncle died, Jean inherited it, but she was only 30. However, her solicitor has some discretion to dispense funds if it seems wise to do so, and he ends up releasing more of her funds than her uncle probably thought should be for her capitalistic ventures in Willstown, Australia, which she is determined to make more like the town of Alice, a town Joe told her about so many times during the war.
While the book presents these backward and old-fashioned ideas about women, Jean seems to break all of the stereotypes and prove her uncle and others wrong. She is capable of leading a group of exhausted and hungry female prisoners hundreds of miles all over Malaya. She is able to find a situation that works for them in a local village in order to live out the rest of the war without marching. She is fluent in Malay and she is confident and capable of traveling on her own. She is careful with her money and capable of owning many profitable businesses, started for the good of the community. She sees a need and fills it. While this book is partially a romantic love story, it is mostly about a strong woman who proves people wrong when it comes to judging her sex. Jean Paget doesn’t need anybody’s pity or kindness. She’s perfectly capable of caring for herself and for conversing and brokering logically and competently in order to improve her situation.
While Jean Paget is busy building a town like Alice, I was busy figuring out how I could become a woman like Jean.