Monday, August 22, 2016

We'll always be thankful for our introduction to A Town Like Alice.

By Michelle Ule

Long ago, we watched PBS' Masterpiece Theater religiously. It didn't matter what they produced on Sunday nights, we watched it.

We only had a couple television stations in those days before cable, and we had little money during my husband's early years in the military. Sunday nights at 9 were special.

 We found many programs we loved over the years (Poldark I and II come to mind), but the one that has given us the most pleasure over all the years since then came from a story written by Neville Shute: A Town Like Alice.

An Unusual WWII story

It began simply enough with a London lawyer driving his car through the gloom of a Scotland night to the home of a reclusive bachelor who needed to write his will in the early 1930s.

 A bachelor himself but more modern, narrator Noel Strachan took down the notes and made note of the heirs.

He raised his eyebrows when his client insisted that everything went to his nephew then living in Malaya with his family, but if for some reason the then-schoolboy predeceased his younger sister, the money could go to her--when she was 35!

 Strachan didn't approve, but it seemed so unlikely a thing to happen, he wrote the will, the Scotsman signed it and everything went back to sleepy normal.

 Except a war erupted and the world changed.

 The Scottish bachelor died five or so years after the war and Strachan went hunting for the heirs.

The nephew had died building the railroad as depicted in The Bridge over the River Kwai. The men were sent off to the railway where many died.

 The search changes his life and opened his eyes to so much his staid suits and organized life didn't expect.

Watching Noel grown and change is poignant and wonderful.


 Jean Paget, then working for a shoe manufacture back in England was the sole heir.

 Noel took  a liking to the lonely thirty year old and saw himself as a man about the world who could introduce her to the great things of life: fine dining, literature, plays and the opera.

Good natured, she went along and enjoyed the outings, one day insisting he join her at a local ice skating rink, where she lets down for a moment, reflecting, "I used to dream about ice skating out there."

Noel may not have realized how lonely he was himself, but asked her to tell him about her life during the war in Malaya.

 Oh, my. What a tale she told.


Unfamiliar with the world?

No, like so many post-war, she had been broken by her experiences and knew far more about life, love, suffering and the joy of giving than Noel had ever imagined.


When the Japanese forces came up river and seized all the men in the ex-pat community where Jean worked as a secretary and lived with her brother, they separated the British men from the women and children.

Image result for a town like alice The women and children were sent to a Japanese internment camp--but they had to walk there.

 And so began a year-long saga of walking through the Malayan heat and humidity from one Japanese officer to another--constantly being turned away.

 They died, one by one, until just a small band were left and encountered, two Australian prisoners who knew how to drive and repair trucks.

 Joe Harmon was a wiley sort, as he and his mate drove up and down the roads moving supplies for the Japanese.

 He fell for Jean, though he thought her married since she had a "little nipper" with her (the orphaned child of a friend), but he wanted to help the women and stole the items they needed.

They were thin and wracked by malaria.

He snatched food and medicines where he could, siphoned gas from the truck tanks to sell and helped them for some time.

Until one day, he outrageously stole the local commander's prize chickens.

When they found Joe, the Japanese crucified him.

Recognizing her did it to impress her, Jean was crushed.

After the War

Her story shocked Noel.

She told him that night she had decided what to do with her substantial inheritance. Jean wanted to return to Malaya and build a well.

She wasn't old enough to command her fortune.

Would Noel okay the funds?

He heard a little more of the story and why she wanted to build a well for a small fishing village that ultimately sheltered the women and let them work in the rice paddies for the rest of the war--thus saving their lives.

Recognizing at this point the change in his own life if she went, he agreed to see her go--as long as she promised to come back.

Of course she would come back. There was nothing for her other this desire to bless the village which had blessed her.

He saw her off, received wonderful letters of her adventures, and one day Joe Harmon walked into his London office.

The rest of the story?

Glorious and oh, so satisfying.

 Neville Shute 

 My husband and I both love this story and bought the DVD from PBS, which we enjoy just as much.

But we also love all the books by Neville Shute, laughing that they are love stories in which the hero is always an engineer like my guy. (Not always, but mechanical forces often show up).

Our favorite book of his is probably Trustee from the Toolroom, but it's no so famous or easy to find as A Town Like Alice.

 Treat yourself to either the book or the movie.

Love, war, engineering, England, Australia and an immensely satisfying ending.

Oh and that town? Alice Springs is in Australia.

You can view the trailer here.


A Town Like Alice: love, WWII, the far east and an engineer. What could be better? Click to Tweet

Our favorite WWII love story, the astonishing A Town Like Alice. Click to Tweet       

Michelle Ule is the best-selling author of six novels/novellas and the biographer of the forthcoming (Baker Books, October 2017). Learn more about her at
Mrs. Oswald Chambers


Karen R said...

We loved that movie too! It was epic! Would like to read the book someday. Enjoyed reading your blog.

Michelle D Ule said...

Thanks, Karen!

It's hard to find the PBS mini-series. I've had a scratchy VHS copy for years and after writing this post, went hunting for a DVD. Eventually, I found one and it hopefully will arrive soon--I'm not sure how much longer the VHS tape will last!

We love all his books. Different, for sure, and straight forward writing (girls all tended to be alike except for Jean, of course), but enjoyable.

I may hunt up another one for my vacation for a reread!

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