Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Three - A Town Like Alice - Part Two

Nevil Shute
Image from The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

This book touched me in many ways. In a weird piece of déjà vu I discovered that this book wasn't all about what I thought it was. I thought it was a story about the Town Like Alice and the characters in that town, but it was also about someone else. I didn't realize that until the last two pages and when I did I sobbed and sobbed. Without giving too much away, I'll say that I always worry about elderly men who are alone. I never worry about the elderly women, particularly women of previous generations. Once the man is retired, his life's work is done. But the woman's life work was running the home and taking care of people, and her work is never done. Many elderly men have never fended for themselves and are ill prepared to do so. Yet one of the messages of this book is that in helping someone in his professional capacity, one elderly gentleman found what he felt was his life's greatest purpose. 

There are so many things in this book--the resilience of some people, the inability of others to be resilient; the sense of adventure some seem born with and the complacency of others to stay where they were born and to live there quite happily all of their days. This is something I have pondered frequently throughout my life. My father grew up in a small town and left the first chance he got, never to live there again. Yet we frequently went back to that small town where his parents and one of his sisters remained. And now, the eldest child of that sister still lives in that small town while all of her own siblings have left. And that eldest child would never live anywhere else. This has always fascinated me. Some people can "bloom where they're planted" while others need to move on. Some of those that move on don't go very far and then bloom in that new place. Others wander far and wide and are quite happy wherever they land.

Part of this book is about the war--World War II--and it shared some things that I've read in other books about the war but differed in others. I naively assumed that because this book was published in 1950 its tone would be different from the books that I've read lately. I thought that these recent reads (The Book Thief, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Island Of Saints) wrote about individual German people and/or soldiers as good people who were also victims of their monstrous government only because of the time that has elapsed since the war. This book made me realize I was wrong. Of course the Allied soldiers in WWII knew that their enemy was comprised of scared young men just like themselves. And there must have been German soldiers who knew Hitler was evil.

The main character, Jean, is a woman who did what she had to do to survive--at first. Then she went back to her "normal" life, and then she went to a new place and bloomed where she was planted. Boy, did she bloom! Her early hardships determined how she was to live the rest of her life, and I suppose that's the way it always is. The only way to become a compassionate person is to suffer. 

The one thing about this book that I expected to find and did was the social conventions of 1950 that differ from the conventions of 2010. I got the sense with this book that some of the terms would be considered inappropriate if not downright racist, though I didn’t actually know most of the slang since the book was set in what used to be Malaya and then in Australia. But it is more acceptable to me to read a book set in the past which accurately portrays the use of "non-PC" words than to read one which rewrites history. Besides, the careful words we use today will undoubtedly be scorned by people reading them in 2070.

It's always interesting to me to read about the connection between Britain and one of her former possessions. The British have this connection with Australia and with India... and with us. But we and the Australians and the Indians and all of the others are only former siblings. We haven't retained that sense of connection like the connection between two countries when their daily lives are affected by parents or grandparents who formerly lived in the homeland.

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