A Love StoryAugust 22, 2014

Nevil Shute was a prolific writer, but "A Town Like Alice" (1950) would be special for many reasons. It was love, overflowing. It was love and nothing else. It was love shown in different ways.

The novel took place during World War II and the decades that followed. It was a man's world, but Jean Paget proved that a woman could make a difference.

"She looked at him in wonder. 'Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done.'

'That's as it may be,' he replied. 'The fact is, that you did it.'"

Jean downplayed her achievements, but her experiences during the war inspired her. She was in Malaya, the only Englishwoman who was a prisoner of the Japanese. She was with other women and children, some of whom suffered and perished. It was she who convinced the Japanese to find a place which would be their base. Sergeant Joe Harman, an Australian soldier, came. The two were attracted to each other, but they were distracted by the hardship and suffering. In fact, there was one instance when Joe stole some chickens from a Japanese commander. He gave it to Jean and her company, most of whom were malnourished. But the commander saw it differently, planning to punish the women and children. Joe admitted the crime, and was crucified and left in that state. They left the base, believing that the young soldier would be dead.

Second chance

Jean made it through the ordeal and was repatriated when the war ended. She lived in London, where she worked in a leather goods factory. Then Noel Strachan came. He was a solicitor with good news. Life would never be the same for her.

She was back in Malaya many months later, revisiting the field. She recalled the days the women and children died from thirst. She paid for the building of a well, but this wasn't done to honour the deceased. (A community replaced what was once a prison camp.) Then she found out that Joe survived the crucifixion. She travelled to Australia, remembering his whereabouts. What she didn't know was Joe used his earnings to travel to England and look for her. If not for Mr. Strachan, then their story won't end on a happy note. But there was more.

Mr. Strachan told Jean that a distant relative left her a considerable sum of money. She thought of using it to build a life for her and Joe. They chose Willstown, which was located in the interior. They could've been sensible, opting for Sydney. But Jean liked the community, even if they have prejudices against women. She trained them, with Joe's help. She had a vision. She had Alice Springs in mind.

What goes around

Shute, like Herman Hesse, was interested in mystical matters. Joe's survival from the crucifixion could be seen as a ressurection of sort, where fate would play in his - and Jean's - favour. What Mr. Strachan didn't tell Jean was the inheritance came from the gold rush. He was stoked when he learned about her intentions.

Alice Springs, located south of the Northern Territory, was a community that transformed into a metropolis after a gold rush. But in Jean's case, Willstown grew from good deeds. There was love all around.

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