A Town Like Alice (1950)

by Nevil Shute

War, romance, exotic locales, an inspiring protagonist: A Town Like Alice pulls together many potent elements into a compelling read.

Young Englishwoman Jean Paget had been a Japanese prisoner in Malaya during World War II. She was in a group of women and children marched from place to place because the Japanese didn't know what to do with them. They witnessed the horrific crucifixion of an Australian soldier as punishment for stealing food for them. After hundreds of miles and the deaths of half the group, Jean, their natural leader, received permission for the survivors to stay in one village and help in the rice paddy fields.

Back in England after the war, Jean receives an inheritance from a great-uncle. She decides to use the money to build a well in the Malayan village so that the women have a shorter trip to get water. While in Mayala, she learns that the Australian soldier survived his crucifixion, so she goes to Australia to search for him.

It's not giving away anything unexpected to say that the soldier, Joe Harman, has been thinking about Jean, too. In fact, he's in England trying to track her down. Their eventual reconnection and love affair lead to the final section of the book, when Jean's efforts and money turn an outback post in Australia into "a town like Alice," a lively community in the style of Alice Springs, where a woman would actually want to live.

Jean Paget is an exceptional young woman. She embraces challenges matter-of-factly without thinking of herself as  extraordinary. She not only enchants Joe Harman but also Noel Strachan, the 70-plus-year-old widowed lawyer who is trustee of the inheritance and the narrator of the story.

Nevil Shute, an English author who resettled in Australia, based Jean Paget on a real character who had survived a Japanese death march. Shute changed the prisoners from Dutch to English, and the location from Sumatra to Malaya. Joe Harman also had a real-life model who was an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign and had survived a crucifixion by Japanese soldiers.


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