Tuesday, November 4, 2008
A Town Like Alice
A Town Like Alice reminds me so much of my favorite book, Mrs. Mike. Both catalog the difficulties and triumphs of living in remote areas. Both are historical. Both have a strong and engaging female protagonist who are in love with a man responsibly tied to a piece of land. Neither are fluffy Harlequins but make that pit in the bottom of your stomach churn with romance.
In short, I loved it. A Town Like Alice follows Jean Paget, a Scottish woman who was raised by her parents in Malay (now known as Malaysia), returns to work there as an adult and ultimately finds herself trapped there as a Prisoner of War when the Japanese invade the Island during World War II.
Her captivity is accurately described as horrible, with starvation and long marches from town to town killing many women and children. But, it also shows that unique ability of women to nurture, even in the most degrading situations. When she meets Joe Harman, an Australian ringger (cowboy) and fellow POW, he tells Jean about his home and work near Alice Springs, a bonza town in the heart of the Outback. The two extremely lonely and isolated characters become friends. Eventually, when Joe steals five chickens to feed the sick and hungry women and children, Jean is interrogated and punished until Joe confesses and is later crucified by a cruel Japanese leader.
The story's narration is directed by an elderly British attorney, Noel Strachan, who is put in charge of a trust Jean's uncle leaves her. Even with the narration in his control, most of the story is told through Jean sharing her memories to Noel. Eventually, I found Noel's involvement and third party perspective very satisfying, mostly because it allowed the author to cover a greater amount of time without seeming overly jumpy.
The book was written in 1950 and feels like it at times. The attitudes of segregation and thoughtless charactitures of minorities creates feelings of discomfort at times. It's not done with malice, and the story isn't about racial barriers at all, so I didn't find it offensive. If anything, it allows an unapologetic view that probably most white people had at the time - which is actually an interesting glimpse on its own.
I appreciated this book - for its less frequently told story of female prisoners of war and for its celebration of the human spirit.