A Town Like Alice
"A harrowing, exciting, and in the end very satisfying war romance."
A TOWN LIKE ALICE tells of a young woman who miraculously survived a Japanese "death march" in World War II, and of an Australian soldier, also a prisoner of war, who offered to help her--even at the cost of his life....
From the Paperback edition.
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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1899-1960)
I happened upon A Town Like Alice for the first time in my teen years. It has become my favorite novel about a brave and visionary woman; set during and after World War II. Nevil Shute was inspired to write this novel when he met a woman at a dinner party who told him about her similar experiences as a P.O.W.
The story begins with an elderly English solicitor, Noel Strachan, who must contact Jean Paget, the main character, to inform her of a substantial legacy left to her by his client, her great uncle. The solicitor, who narrates, is puzzled that Jean, a competent and very attractive woman in her mid-twenties, has never married and lacks in vibrancy. As a secretary/manager in a shoe factory, she performs her job with excellence and has no social life or romantic interests. As he continues meeting with her to explain her legacy and its conditions, he gains her confidence and learns her story of survival during the war.
Jean was a British civil servant in Malaya when she and other employees and their wives were taken prisoner by the Japanese. She became the leader of the women as they were marched by their Japanese captors to the women’s p.o.w. camp. A camp that did not exist.
The Japanese intended that the women and children would wear down during the “death marches” through the jungles, starve, and die off. Initially, the guards were uninformed of the nonexistence of the camp, but even their fate was a matter of indifference to the military leaders. Jean and the other women survive or perish, depending on their health and outlook, under harsh conditions and the occasional mercy, such as they received from a group of village women along the way.
There is a lot of walking in A Town Like Alice. I think this book inspired my love of walking as a way to become strong. In my life and the lives of these characters, walking is therapeutic. The women who survived were the ones who could adapt and become strong by the very means with which their enemies meant to kill them.
As Jean and the solicitor continue to meet to finalize her inheritance, he notices that she seems fairly polarized by the legacy she is receiving. As an aside, it is clear to the reader that the seventy something solicitor is smitten by Jean and wishes he were a much younger man. The two have become friendly, so she tells him of a profound encounter during the death marches.
She met an Australian prisoner, Joe Harmon, who showed an interest in her. During their brief times together Joe shared with Jean his dream of ranching in the outback of Australia. He described to Jean the lovely town of Alice Springs which served as a respite for ranchers and their families. Forced by their guards to part ways, Joe helps the women in various ways, even at the cost of his life. Knowing this man, admiring him for his courage, and inspired by his stories of Australia and work as a ranch hand, Jean still grieves. Through the solicitor’s eyes, we can empathize with Jean’s combination of strength and loss, even though she now has the world before her.
The rest of the story is about what Jean does with her legacy. She begins a journey to help those who have shown her kindness during her time as a prisoner of war. Her vision and grace find reward as she gives sacrificially to further the vision of the man who once shared his dream of building a town in the outback of Australia, a town like Alice.
There are many surprises along the way, as well as beautifully developed characters, excellent descriptions of the land, geography, and lifestyle of Australia. It is a love story, but not a sappy one. Themes of economics, hope, love, survival, and war are also a major part of Nevil Shute’s books.
The story and character of Jean were inspiring to me as a teen. I’ve read A Town Like Alice at least three times, each time seeing something that has shaped my vision of womanhood. It is unusual to discover characters of such moral fiber and depth. The character of Jean is a well-drawn example of