#37. A Town Like Alice by Nevile Shute
A Town Like Alice is #37 on the 2011 List and #96 on the 2012 List.
A Town Like Alice (U.S. title: The Legacy) is a novel by the British-Australian author Nevil Shute. The story of a young Englishwoman, told by her elderly solicitor and trustee, about her time as a prisoner in Malaya during World War II and her new post-war life in Australia, in a small outback community which she sets out to turn into ‘a town like Alice’ i.e. Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. It 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 kilometers (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 Burketown, 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.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on The Reader’s List of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the novel contains the earliest known use of the word dicey: “He.. made a tight, dicey turn round in the gorge with about a hundred feet to spare.”
Most of the books that I have read about WWII have been centered on the German activity, as I am currently in Germany. I want to understand the attitude and the sites I am viewing while in Germany. This was a nice change of venue, and to realize that these characters were based on real people and their very real experiences make the story more enduring.