Monday, January 27, 2014

Grappling with Alice

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, originally published in 1950, is one of those books that I’ve heard about for years. A lot of people have recommended it, all of them women.

The library recently got a handsome new copy of the book, so I picked it up.

It’s the story of Jean Paget, an apparently ordinary young Englishwoman, who turns out to be far from ordinary after all. She endures three traumatic years as a POW of the Japanese in British Malaya during the Second World War. She develops a friendship with a male prisoner from Australia, who tries to help Jean and the other female prisoners, and who is brutally punished for it.

After the war, in England, Jean unexpectedly receives a tidy inheritance from a distant relative. She returns to the Malayan village that helped her during the war and spends some of her money there, building a needed well. Then she journeys to the Australian Outback, hoping to find out what happened to the Australian man she met during the war.

It’s hard not to love a book in which people similar to you are described warmly and positively. Jean is a very strong, graceful heroine. In fact, a theme throughout the book is that women exhibit extraordinary courage, resilience, and resourcefulness in crises. There’s a wonderful sequence describing the response to a man missing in the vast Outback. A network of female dispatchers calmly marshall and organize search-and-rescue parties over the radio.

But if I liked the way A Town Like Alice depicts women, I did not enjoy its depiction of nonwhite people. Aboriginal Australians are described as childishly primitive, amusingly unreliable, and dumbly content in their proper, subordinate place. Indeed, there’s a neck-cracking whiplash moment in which a man gives the suntanned Jean a nickname, “Mrs. [offensive racial slur].” She likes it, signalling that neither she nor the author found the word offensive at the time.

That seems to be the key to appreciating a book like A Town Like Alice. It is of its time, and it seems wrong to hold it to social standards of today. When Jean opens up an ice cream parlor, she naturally plans for a separate counter for the black customers - it was 1950. That’s what ice cream parlors did.

And yet, I’m a 2014 reader.  That separate counter, and all the racial assumptions that are packed into it, still bother me.

How do you react to books written in times and places different from your own? When you encounter different moral standards in a novel, do they spoil the experience of an otherwise-good book to you? Or can you accept them as part of the millieu of the book?

If you have thoughts on this topic, or just want to talk about A Town Like Alice, post a comment below!

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