The impact of World War II and the Prisoner of War experience on the Australian psyche is described in gritty detail by Neville Shute in his famous novel A Town Like Alice. It is a story of trial and triumph, cruelty and kindness, loss and gain. Shute draws out the Australian dream of developing the north, speaks into the ANZAC myth and celebrates collective British-Australian values present in the fledgling nation. A Town Like Alice has gained its place on the IPA’s Australian Canon of great literary works because of its unique insight into the factors which forged Australian culture in the later part of the 20th century.
The novel falls broadly into four parts and includes multiple storylines which are linked by Jean Paget, the smart, tough and resourceful heroine of the tale. In the first section a London lawyer tracks down Jean after her uncle dies, leaving her a modest inheritance. The second part consists of a series of flashbacks to Jean’s experiences as a prisoner in the East during World War II. During this time Jean is marched hundreds of miles with a group of women and children by Japanese soldiers. Later Jean returns to Malaya to build a well for a small village which had taken her party in during the war. The third part covers Jean’s search for fellow prisoner Joe Harmon, an Australian man, who steals food and medicine to help her struggling group during the war. Jean travels to Australia only to find that Joe has traveled to England in search of her. The pair reunite in Cairns, rekindle the flame and agree to get married. In the fourth part of the story Jean sets up a number of business ventures in a small northern Australian settlement, transforming the ghost town into a thriving community ‘like’ Alice Springs.
Shute’s description of the prisoner of war experience under the Japanese is one of great deprivation, death and cruelty but this is tempered by redemptive instances of human kindness and sacrifice. Speaking of the death of her brother in a railway labour camp Jean says:
‘One man died for every sleeper that was laid, and it was about two hundred miles long. Donald was one of them.’
The cruelty of the Japanese reaches its climax with the crucifixion of Joe Harman who is whipped and nailed to a tree after stealing chickens from a local commanding officer. Jean believes he died from the harrowing ordeal which she and her group were forced to watch and only finds out about his survival years later. Despite these incidents Shute portrayed many Japanese guards in a sympathetic light with Jean acknowledging the soldiers were ‘as kind as their orders allow’. The prisoner of war experience during World War II reinforced the ANZAC myth which was born during the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition in World War I. The Australian spirit of courage, initiative and mate-ship in the absence of a military victory were once again displayed by those in captivity and immortalised by Shute in his novels.
A Town Like Alice is much more than a classic romance and recognises that love is more than an emotional connection between two people. Sacrifice, charity and commitment are emphasised throughout the novel alongside the unassuming heroism of the ordinary person. Shute celebrates ordinary people who rise to the challenge when placed in an extraordinary situation. The story opens with Paget working a full time job as a London secretary. But the reader soon discovers Jean has already showed courage, determination and leadership in adversity, saving the lives of many after being captured by the Japanese in Malaysia. ‘I only did what anybody could have done,’ she tells an admirer, who responds: ‘That’s as it may be…The fact is, that you did it.’ Jean later rejuvenates a small agricultural town known as Willstown. Everything she touches is left changed for the better including the lawyer from the start of the book with whom she builds a strong and lasting friendship. Jean is depicted by Shute as being tough, hard-working and resourceful – attributes which define the archetypal Australian settler and the broader national identity.
Despite reflecting the prejudices of its time, A Town Like Alice is a powerful story about a smart, tough and resourceful young woman and the role played by many like her in developing northern Australia. In the book, Jean wants Joe to continue in the work he loves on the station but doesn’t want to live in the old mining town. Her solution: ‘We’ll have to do something about Willstown.’ Jean has a keen business instinct, she has money to invest and she has vision. She starts a shoe-making factory using locally supplied crocodile skin and employing girls who would have otherwise moved to a big city. Soon after she opens an ice cream parlour, open-air cinema and hair salon. Men and women start to settle down in Willstown and new houses are constructed in abandoned lots. Australia is shown as a sunny land of opportunity which contrasts strongly with the horrors of war and postwar rations in Britain. When Shute died in 1960, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph declared Australia had lost one of its greatest friends and propagandists. A Town Like Alice was hugely successful with the British public and was one of many novels which drove the surge of ‘ten-pound poms’ who accepted the Australian government’s offer of assisted migration. My grandparents were among this group and continue to hold fast to their British heritage, while loving the country they now call home. The influence of British values and institutions on the Australian way of life has been significant. This is noted by Shute, an immigrant himself, with Cairns being described as ‘almost aggressively English in its loyalties’. The novel fed into self-affirming stereotypes and the national sense of self for decades.
Shute captures the very best and worst of humanity in his moving tale about human resilience and endeavour in the most difficult situations. The Australian psyche has been shaped by war, influenced strongly by British immigration and conditioned by the harsh outback experience. The product of these forces are Australians like Joe and Jean – hardworking, competent and true. A Town Like Alice emphasises the spirit of egalitarianism and mutual support on which Australia was built and the extraordinary things which can be achieved by ordinary individuals.
This appreciation of A Town Like Alice was written by IPA Researcher, Brianna McKee, in 2022, specifically for The Genius of Australia.