All Commentary
Friday, August 9, 2013

Trade Is Made of Win

Nevil Shute. A Town Like Alice. New York: Vintage International, [1950] 2009. 351 pages.

One of the most remarkable things about markets is their persistence. What Adam Smith called the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” exerts such a strong pull that even in the most locked-down economies, even amid the greatest scarcity, peaceful and voluntary exchanges occur. And when they occur, they have the potential to change the world.

Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice, tells the story of some of these exchanges and their long-term effects. Opening, as all the best novels do, with the extended discussion of a will, A Town Like Alice introduces us to Jean Paget at the moment she inherits her uncle’s estate. At first, Jean appears to be merely a somewhat nondescript shorthand typist, but as she begins to unfold her personal history, we learn that her experience is much more intriguing.

During World War II, Jean was living in Malaya. She was captured by the Japanese and held prisoner for the duration. Because there were no available prison camps for women, Jean and the 30 women and children who were captured with her spend seven months walking for miles every day through the jungle, from village to village, under heavy guard. During that time, more than half of the group dies. Those who survive are enabled to do so by Jean’s propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

For example, in the earliest days of her capture, Jean realizes that she has to acquire some mosquito repellent or she and the rest of her group will risk dangerous illness. Under guard, she can’t go to the village shop. So she uses her ability to speak Malay to persuade a local child to bring the local pharmacist to her. The pharmacist “approached the sentry and spoke to him, indicating his wish to sell his wares; after some hesitation the sentry agreed. Jean got six tubes of repellent and the rest was swiftly taken by the other women. Halijah [the child] got ten cents.” Jean’s exchanges have clearly left everyone better off than they had been previously. Trade, as Art Carden puts it, is made of win.

Jean and the other women rapidly use up their small supply of cash, however, and trade becomes more difficult. They continue to rely on Jean’s ability to speak Malay and her insistence on creating useful exchanges in order to persuade village headmen into giving them food and a place to sleep in exchange for the small bits of jewelry and clothing they have managed to keep. Just as they are down to nothing, they encounter two Australian prisoners—captured and put to work driving trucks for the Japanese—who are willing to do a little petty thieving from their captors in order to get petrol to trade with the Malay villagers. While the women are now under such close guard that Jean is unable to assist with her language skills, the Australians find that when one has petrol to trade, “it is extraordinary how little barrier an unknown language makes between a willing buyer and a willing seller.” That propensity to trade what one has for something one wants is just too appealing to pass up—no matter what the barriers might be.

Later, the Australians help the women get some soap through similarly criminal channels. When Jean apologizes for being unable to pay them, one notes, “Forget about it … I didn’t pay cash for it myself. I swapped it for a pair of Nip rubber boots. …You got the soap, the Nips got another pair of boots, and Ben got a dollar. Everybody’s happy and satisfied.” Trade, yet again, is made of win. 

It is with the Australians that Jean begins to discuss her plans to find a village where the women can shelter for the war. Clearly, their captors have no idea what to do with them and don’t want to be bothered finding them shelter. It should be easy enough to persuade them to let the women live quietly on their own. But there is an economic problem. “The trouble is, the Japs feed us—or they make the village feed us. The village never gets paid. We’d have to earn our keep somehow, and I don’t see how we can do it.” Once Jean states the problem that simply, however, the solution becomes clear. 

When the women find a village where the rice paddies have gone unplanted since the men left for the war, Jean is able to negotiate precisely such a deal. She and the other women will plant and tend the rice paddies, and the village will feed and shelter them. They barter their labor for food and shelter for the remainder of the war, and both the village and the women are better off. 

With this set of experiences behind her, and this training in bartering and in seeking incremental improvements, Jean receives her inheritance. The second half of Shute’s novel explores how that set of experiences affects the way she thinks about her money and what she sets out to do with it.

The first thing Jean decides to do, it turns out, is to return to the Malay village that sheltered her to build a well and a wash house as a thanks offering for the women. Next, she goes to Australia to find the men who helped her. Arriving in the small Australian town where one of them lives she finds … nothing. And she determines to make something of it. 

With the same tenacity, alertness, and persistence that allowed her to trade her way through the Malay jungle and create something like a home for the women and children who survived with her, Jean sets out to remake the outback encampment of Willstown into a “town like Alice”—the comparably cosmopolitan Alice Springs. She starts a small factory to make leather goods from local alligator skins, then staffs the factory with young women in order to encourage young men to stay in town. She opens an ice cream parlor to give the young people somewhere to go and to bring in some more income for her enterprises. She opens a small shop to sell “things women like,” and then a pool, and a host of other businesses. By the end of the novel, Willstown has become, through Jean’s work and vision, a “bonzo town, a town like Alice.”

At the novel’s close, Jean’s lawyer notes that “it is no small matter to assist in the birth of a new city, and as I sit here looking out into the London mist I sometimes wonder just what it is that Jean has done; if any of us recognize, even yet, the importance of her achievement.” Shute’s novel is a war story, an adventure story, a tragedy, and a romance. But in this moment, and in hundreds of small moments throughout, it is also a hymn to the power of trade to save lives, to improve conditions, and to change the world in incremental steps. 

Jean’s story is a thorough working out of the bourgeois virtues. She is first able to save and preserve herself, then a small group. Then she uses the same abilities to help a small village, and then to build a vibrant town in a new country. Trade, and a town like Alice, is made of win.