A Shout-out for Shute

I’m wondering if there is anyone out there in Book Group Buzz Land who is reading Nevil Shute.  In case you are unfamiliar with the name, Shute is an English author who later became an Australian citizen and who is best known for the novels A Town Like Alice and On the Beach.  He was very popular with fiction readers during the 1950s and 1960s.  He died in 1960, but during his lifetime he wrote 24 novels and an autobiography, Slide Rule.  In addition to being a writer, he was also an aeronautical engineer and an aviation pioneer.

I bring up his name because he was a great storyteller and A Town Like Alice is one of my favorite books of all time.  I recently led a discussion of this novel with library science graduate students at Dominican University, and it pleased me that many of them shared my enthusiasm for both the story and the characters.  As one of the participants said, “These characters are people you can really care about!”

Real storytellers are rare, I think, and when you discover one, you should spread the word, so that others don’t miss the great enjoyment that a gifted storyteller is able to provide.  A Town Like Alice, which was made into a television miniseries several years ago and presented on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” has been described as a war story, a love story, and a story of people creating a life for themselves and others in the rugged Australian outback.  It is actually all three, and that’s what makes it such wonderful reading.

The heroine of A Town Like Alice is an Englishwoman named Jean Paget, and she is an amazing fictional creation.  In the 1950s, when this book was being widely read, she must have been regarded as a “woman ahead of her time,” because she was so brave, so strong, so resourceful, so determined — not the kind of girl usually depicted in stories of that era.  One of the discussion members pointed out that the book is actually a historical novel now, but it wasn’t at the time it was first published.  And although Time magazine called Jean “too good to be true,” she’s not unlike a lot of today’s fictional heroines, and so the book holds up beautifully: it had something important to say then, and it still does.

Jean survives capture by the Japanese in World War II Malaya and  during this time, she forms a close relationship with another prisoner, Joe Harmon, who is beaten and crucified by their captors.  This happens in the middle of the book, but Jean’s story doesn’t end there —  many gripping adventures follow, and ultimately, there is a happy ending.

I enjoyed the idea of introducing Nevil Shute to a new generation that might not have heard of him and thus might miss the rich experience of reading his brilliantly plotted and expertly written work.  There is a web site that Shute fans should be aware of, www.nevilshute.org.   It has been developed and is maintained by the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation (Norway was Shute’s real last name — he used his middle name during his writing career, to create separation from his other life as an engineer), and it is filled with interesting information about the author and his books.  It is a helpful resource for discussion leaders who are preparing to present one of his novels to a book group, but it is more than that — because it offers photographs of Shute memorabilia and reviews by fans and articles about favorite Shute characters and comments by Shute’s daughter about her father’s work, and, and, AND!  If you love Nevil Shute, as I do, you’ll just find it fun to look at!

According to what I read on the web site, all of Shute’s literary canon is still in print.  There’s also a film adaptation of A Town Like Alice out there, made in the 50s, and starring Virginia McKenna of Born Free fame and Oscar winner Peter Finch, but so far, there isn’t a DVD version.  I’d like to start a campaign to make it available, and who knows, I might — after all, thousands of Facebook contributors succeeded in getting Betty White to agree to host Saturday Night Live, so perhaps it’s not such an impossible dream!

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

3 Comments on "A Shout-out for Shute"

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  1. yankeerat@gmail.com' Kara says:

    Can I also put in a plug for “Requiem For a Wren”? I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of Shute, and I wish not only that he was better known in this country, but that more of his books were available here. All of my copies were gleaned from used book shops when I lived in the UK.

  2. penelope97814@yahoo.com' Penny says:

    It’s amazing to find discussion about Nevil Shute so long after I read him. I used to check his books out of the library when I was in high school in the late 60s. My favorite was The Legacy which of course is now called A Town Like Alice, but I read every one of his books that I could get my hands on. I think it’s time to reread them all. Thanks for this blog.

  3. cmartine@uccs.edu' Christina says:

    I listened to audio versions of A Town Like Alice and Requiem for a Wren, and they were both compelling novels. I was searching around trying to come up with a suggestion for my book club, and Nevil Shute is a great idea.

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