A Town Called Alice wasn’t the most amazing sounding title ever, it has been on my list of books to read from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, however I did not know this was gonna become one of my favourite books.
Warning: Contains spoilers
The story can be divided into 2 parts with slightly different themes. In the beginning of the story we are introduced to a young British woman named Jean Paget who has inherited a large amount of wealth, but it came in the form of a trust which she would not get the full capital until she becomes 35 (due to her uncle’s distrust of young women with money) but she could live off the yield from the trust quite easily. When her solicitor Strachan asked her what she would like to do after accumulating a good portion of the yield, she said she wanted to go build a well in Malaya (present day Malaysia). She then recounted her story of survival in Malaya:
She was a typist working at a rubber plant there with her brother, when the Second World War begun, the Japanese force occupied the territory and she became a prisoner of war along with 34 other women and children. They were forced on a death march all over Malaya and through out the 6 months of the march, 17 of them died. Jean’s will to survive was strong, she was the first to stop wearing shoes not useful for travelling through marshes, she adapted the native dress to protect herself from the sun and keep cool. Eventually the group of women met 2 Australian men doing delivery work for the Japanese, one particular man called Joe Harman went out of his way to help them and Jean grew close to him. But the Japanese found out about his activities and crucified him. Jean believed he died then. The women eventually found their way to small village and Jean convinced the native man to allow them to work in agriculture and stay there until the rest of the war.
Jean went back to Malaya and build a well as a thank you gift for the women in the village, on her trip, she heard that Joe was still alive and moved back to a fictional town called Willstown. At the same time frame, Joe learned of Jean’s whereabouts and went to England to look for her. Jean travelled a long way to Willstown in Queensland, she found the rural outback was in appalling condition and she decided she would help the town become “A Town Like Alice (Spring)”. When she and Joe got back, She established a workshop to produce crocodile skin products to export to England, where she worked in a lady’s wear distributor, she also recruited a skilled seamstress to help run the workshop, this helped to keep the Aussie girls from fleeing to bigger cities to get work. She also opened an ice cream parlour so people can spend their money in a hot climate. Her gradual success allowed her to open a swimming pool, dams to feed the cattle, open air cinema, beauty parlour, dress shop and green grocer. She helped to turn a dying town of 150 to over 400 people and counting. She had the help of her trust fund, it was finally revealed the money was earned from the gold rush and Strachan was glad to see the money being returned to the same place for a good (and profitable) cause.
The first theme of the book is the will to survive, Jean did not ignorantly conform to her old British way of life, she did what was best for her survival. Perhaps it did not seem rational to other women at the time but they all eventually followed her. She never once gave up hope on finding a camp for her group. Likes attract, Joe was a Godsend who renewed her will to live when it seemed hopeless, her wits and ability to adapt were the ultimate tools of her survival, not blind whims and wishing. The second theme was business venture, Jean had inherited a large sum of money, she did not become spoiled by it, she in fact used the money to do good things not only benefiting herself, but other around her. Her business venture was aimed to make her own life better (and in essence, Joe’s too) but it had the unintended consequence of making a dead town thrive.
The book was written incredibly well, there was not one line I thought was out of place or unrealistic. The story itself followed romantic realism, it presented the greatest potential of humanity in the form of a woman who had suffered a lot in life. I actually took my time reading it to savour each moment, I haven’t done so since Atlas Shrugged, I enjoyed every moment in the book, there was not a single section that was dull.
In a way, Jean Paget reminded me a lot of Dagny Taggart, she was not expected to do great things similar to how Dagny was told girls couldn’t become a railway executive. She knew what exactly needed to be done and she wouldn’t stop until it gets done, which is also like Dagny’s determination to keep Taggart Transcontinental running. But unlike Dagny, her struggles helped her to build a happier life and all the investment paid off. Although Ayn Rand did not read this book, I am sure she would have praised it nonetheless.