Beyond the Black Stump: Nevil Shute’s Assessment of the American Character

The American Character in the Novels of Nevil Shute 

David K. Vaughan 

Nevil Shute is a writer little known today.  Of the twenty-three novels published in his lifetime, only one, On the Beach, is readily available in bookstores.  Nevil Shute Norway, to give him his full name, was an accomplished aeronautical engineer and aircraft manufacturer, and in his time was a widely read author.  His novels reflect his profound interest in three main themes: the usefulness of technological developments for human society; the moral responsibilities of a government for its citizens; and the essential qualities of national character as expressed in the attitudes, actions, and ideals of the people.  It is the last of these three—Shute’s estimation of the quality of national character as evidenced in the daily activities of members of the American middle class—that I would like to discuss today.  Although Shute assesses a variety of aspects of the American character in his later novels, his primary evaluation of the fundamental American perspective is found in a relatively obscure novel, Beyond the Black Stump, published in 1956.

In the majority of his novels, Nevil Shute focused most of his creative energy on the political issues of England and Australia, and came to consider American issues relatively late in his career.  From 1930 to 1938 Shute directed all of his energy into securing financial backing and markets for his own aircraft company, Airspeed Ltd.  He eventually left the company after growing disagreements with his board of directors over marketing and financing strategies.  By 1938 he had published four novels and had sold the film rights to two, Lonely Road and Ruined City.  The money he received from these films combined with the settlement from the Airspeed Board of Directors made it possible for him to shift occupation from aircraft manufacturer to writer with a minimum of hardship.  He was especially productive during the next two years, bringing out three novels in rapid succession: What Happened to the Corbetts (1939); An Old Captivity (1940); and Landfall (1940).  When Britain entered World War II, he served in the Admiralty, attached to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.  He still found time to write, however; Pied Piper appeared in 1942; Pastoral in 1944; and Most Secret in 1945.

In the spring of 1945 he managed to have himself assigned briefly to Burma as a Ministry of Information correspondent.  The action of his next novel, The Chequer Board (1947), included a sequence in Burma, and marked the direction in which Shute’s interests as a novelist would soon turn: the southeast Asian and Pacific areas.  The publication of No Highway in 1948 brought him international recognition and additional income from the subsequent film adaptation (which featured the unusual pairing of film stars James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich).  He wrote A Town Like Alice before he moved to Australia, although much of the action of the novel takes place there; it was published in 1950, the year that Shute and his family moved to Australia.  In 1951 he produced Round the Bend, a novel which attempts to merge the disparate aspects of aviation technology and religious practices.  Shute’s next two novels, The Far Country (1952) and In the Wet (1953), are primarily involved in comparing social and economic practices in England and Australia.

Although the action of An Old Captivity had briefly touched the eastern shore of the United States, it was not until Requiem for a Wren (1955), the eighteenth of his twenty-two novels, that he wrote in depth about an American setting.  In Requiem for a Wren the Seattle, Washington, area serves as a place of temporary refuge for an Englishwoman, a former Wren, a member of the British Women’s Air Arm, she travels from England to Australia in her attempt to met the family of the young man to whom she had been engaged in World War II before he was killed in action.  The narrator traces her to Seattle, and he wonders, as he drives through the city, “if the ex-Wren had found solace there, some anodyne to her former life [in England].”  The narrator sadly thinks of her as having disappeared “into a foreign country, if a friendly one” (p. 195).  The Seattle episode in Requiem for a Wren is a short one, a brief pause in the movement of the main figure from England to Australia.  But Seattle and the Pacific Northwest become increasingly important as settings in his next works.

The Pacific Northwest setting figures prominently in his next novel, Beyond the Black Stump.  In this novel Shute compares two cultures, one represented by a family in West Australia, and one represented by a family from eastern Oregon.  The key word in Shute’s comparison of the two cultures is frontier, and he shows that although the members of an Oregon family pride themselves on what they call their frontier environment, their mode of existence is in fact more limited and restricted than the unhampered life in the Australian sheep-farming lands.  Shute illustrates in everyday scenes and conversation the shortcomings of a middle class American social outlook that is reluctant to accept cultural or racial diversity.

Shute frames the central Australian episode with events that occur in Hazel, Oregon, the home town of Stanton Laird, a young geologist who works for the Topeka Exploration Company.  Laird has just completed an assignment as a site geologist at an oil drilling operation in Saudi Arabia and is returning home for an extended vacation before traveling to a new assignment in Australia.  Shute focuses upon the actions of Stanton Laird and his family in the opening chapter of the book to establish an American perspective, initially described in a relatively sympathetic manner.  Laird is described as one who “loved his country very dearly, without realizing it.  He was a technician, and nothing technical was worth much to him that did not come from the United States.”  The American automobile functions as a central symbol of the American fascination for bigness, newness, and technical achievement:

Now that he was back in his own country the glorious, spacious vehicles of his own land were an acute pleasure to him; the cars that he had seen in his travels overseas could not compare with the new Oldsmobiles or Cadillacs.  The origins of the techniques that pleased him so did not affect his thinking; that Otto was a German or Whittle was an Englishman did not seem relevant when he considered the superiority of American motorcars and American jet aircraft.  Nothing was very real to him that did not happen in the United States.  (p. 17)

This passage illustrates one common and unpleasant aspect of the American character as Shute depicts it: a lack of a sense of historical context, whether cultural or technical, resulting in intellectual isolation from the world community.

When Stanton Laird arrives at his hometown airport, he discovers that his father has given him as a homecoming present “a great Lincoln convertible in two-tone blue, with blue upholstery, gleaming and bright” (p. 22).  When the family arrives at their home, Laird sees the following improvements that have been made since his last visit: a new electric range, a new dishwasher, a new refrigerator, a new television set, a new heating plant, a new outboard motor, a new boat, a new boat trailer, and two new cars (pp. 23-4).  We are then told that Stanton Laird’s home town is located on the edge of a National Forest, which has been designated by the Federal Government as a Primitive Area.  Although the irony of this situation may have been missed by some American readers, it was obviously not lost on Shute, who was probably recording impressions and facts obtained on a visit to the area in 1954.

Before he moves the action to Australia, Shute creates a final episode in which Stanton Laird responds positively to his father’s request that he stay in Oregon and work in his father’s business with this comment:

It’s still The Frontier here. . . .  It’s still pioneering here, opening things up and getting things started.  Why, lots of the roads around here aren’t paved yet, an’ you can go thirty miles and never pass a gas station. . . .  It’s only two years since we got television, and we can only get two channels even now.  There’s plenty of pioneering to be done here yet, Dad—here on The Frontier.  (pp. 41-2)

In the second chapter of the book, Shute introduces us to what is clearly in his eyes the real frontier, the Laragh Station homestead of the Regan family, where he immediately contrasts the normal existence of the Lairds with the totally unusual lifestyle of the Regans.  The primary female figure in the story is Mollie Regan, the twenty-year-old daughter of Pat and Mrs. Regan.  Mrs. Regan’s eleven children were fathered by three husbands, the first of which, Mr. Foster, died in an automobile accident.  Her second husband, Tom Regan, met her in a bar in Perth (Australia), where she had been working after the death of her first husband.  Tom married her and brought her to live on Laragh Station.  When their affections for each other cooled, she became the common law wife of Tom’s bother Pat; it was this union that produced Mollie.

Because the Regan family is a good Catholic family, no divorce from Tom is possible and the relationship between Mrs. Regan and her third partner is not valid in the eyes of the Church.  However, Laragh Station lies over two hundred miles from the nearest large city, in an arid, sparsely populated area, and few Church official ever pass their way.  Mollie, a perceptive and intelligent girl, is technically an illegitimate child.  The people who live on Laragh Station can literally be said to be one big, relatively happy family, for at least two other offspring who live there resulted from the union of Pat Regan and an Aborigine woman named the Countess Markievicz.  This relationship, we are to surmise, existed in the days before Mrs. Regan appeared.  The cast of unusual characters which inhabits Laragh Station includes a figure called the Judge, who was educated in the Law, who held his seat in an unnamed county court, and who was dismissed for “taking too much interest in delinquent girls” (p. 52).  He now serves as station bookkeeper and schoolteacher.

It is readily apparent that conditions in the Australian outback require personal attributes of flexibility, adaptability, humor, and forgiveness.  Stanton Laird realizes, soon after he arrives, that he is in a much more primitive environment than that of the American West, as it exists in Hazel, Oregon.  When he first meets Mollie Regan, he brags that “America’s a pretty big place. . . .  Where I live there’s nearly three hundred square miles right close into town where you can only go on a horse.  No roads at all.  It’s Frontier still, the part of the United States I come from.”

When Mollie tells him that the size of Laragh Station is slightly under a million acres, or fifteen hundred square miles, and that they use over three hundred horses for transportation, Laird quickly recants: “Is my face red.  I’d better quit talking about our ranches while I’m in Australia” (p. 60).

Stanton Laird and Mollie promptly become romantically involved during the course of his oil surveying activity in the vicinity and express a desire to marry.  Mrs. Regan likes Stanton well enough, but fears (quite rightly, as it turns out), that life in American might not be the blissful existence Mollie imagines it to be, and she recommends that Mollie travel to America to discover for herself the real America before she commits herself to marriage.

After Mollie and Stanton arrive in Oregon, they soon discover that the peculiarities of West Australian life are scarcely compatible with the rigidly structured notions of middle-class America.  Shute maintains his relatively sympathetic portrayal of the members of the Laird family, however; Stanton’s father and mother appear to be well-intentioned individuals who suffer from limited social perspectives.  Shute introduces a new figure who typifies middle-class morality at its most rigid and who typically provides stereotyped responses to issues of sophisticated cultural complexity.  This individual is Aunt Claudia, Mrs. Laird’s sister, who serves as a kind of choric figure in the story.  Her comments function as a social crucible in which the kinds of behaviors of the two cultures are subjected to the fires of American middle-class morality.

In her first appearance, Aunt Claudia provides her version of her link to the American West of the old days—presenting her association with The Frontier—and she obviously does not appreciate the kind of life that exists in Australia as Mollie tries to describe it to her.  At this point, Shute tells us that “The Frontier began to get [Mollie] down” (p. 216); after receiving a letter from a friend from home, Mollie realizes that

She could never hope to make Helen Laird or Claudia understand about the Judge, or her father’s way with rum. . . .  There were some things that she would never be able to talk freely about to her new relations in Hazel, kind and affectionate though they were.  There were some things in her background that they would never understand.  (p. 219)

When Stanton Laird tells Mollie that he fears that the eldest son of his former high school girl friend—who married Stanton’s best friend—might be his, Mollie laughs at his concern about a situation that could easily occur in the Lunatic—the inland regions of West Australia.  To her surprise, however, Mollie learns that this kind of situation is viewed with serious moral concern in Oregon.  When he reflects on Mollie’s reaction, Stanton Laird thinks

The Lunatic was in a foreign country, here people lived to standards that were wholly alien to the United States, drank to excess in an outlandish manner, swapped wives for pistols, and cohabited with native women. . . .  It was deeply insulting to suggest that things that happened in his home town could be in any way comparable with things that happened in the northern part of West Australia.  Hazel was a part of the United States.  (p. 227)

When Mollie tries to tell Stanton’s mother that she is not upset by the possibility that Stanton might have fathered another woman’s son, she draws this response:

I dunno how you young folks look at things. . . .  You surely couldn’t bear to have him [the boy] around the place if he was Stan’s.  Or if you could, what would your folks say?  But he’s not Stan’s, Mollie.  I’m quite sure he’s not.  Cross my heart.”  (p. 232)

Eventually the Laird family discovers not only that Mollie is technically illegitimate, but also that she has half-caste half-brothers and half-sisters.  When Mollie casually mentions the fact that both her father and her uncle fathered children with Aborigine women, Mrs. Laird is incredulous: “But, Mollie—let me get this straight.  You don’t really mean you’ve got colored people in your family?”  Mollie responds, “Does it make any difference?” and Helen says, in total bewilderment, “I dunno, dear.  It’s all been so sudden, first the one and then the other.  Guess a boy’s folks kind of like to know before he marries into a colored family” (pp. 233-4).

Although she means well and is a good person at heart, Helen Laird has not had enough experience outside of the small town of Hazel, Oregon, to accept the vagaries of West Australian behavior.  When a neighbor suggests that the family refrain from criticism and show some confidence in the young couple, Helen is agreeable.  Her sister, however, adds yet another form of prejudice to the story when she responds, “I’d feel a whole lot better about doing that [showing confidence] if she [Mollie] wasn’t a Catholic” (p. 236).

Mollie has essentially decided to return to Australia when she reveals yet another family secret.  After spending a quiet evening with the Laird family watching a Western movie on television in which the hero had disguised himself as an outlaw with a price on his head, Mollie suggests that her family can offer a more sensational story than the Hollywood version they have just seen, and she tells them of her father’s illegal activities in the Irish Republican Army.  Although the family enjoyed this kind of a scenario in a film, they are ill-equipped to deal with it when it presents itself in the real world.

Before she departs for Australia, Mollie tells Stanton Laird that the American West may have been “The Frontier” once, a hundred years earlier, when

Your people married Indian girls when there weren’t any white women, just like us.  I bet your first schoolmasters were people like the Judge.  But that’s all a hundred years ago, and you’ve forgotten about the rude stuff.  If you could meet one of those people now . . . . you wouldn’t want to have him in your house, or introduce him to your friends.  And if it was a girl you wouldn’t want to marry her.  (pp. 245-6)

Mollie returns to Australia, where she will probably marry a neighboring rancher, and Stanton remains in Oregon, where he will work with his father and probably marry the woman whose child he fathered, she having been conveniently made a widow by the accidental death of her husband.

Although one of the principal points Shute makes in Beyond the Black Stump is that life in America is not the idealistic and glamorous style depicted in Hollywood versions, it is also evident that Shute romanticizes the rugged individualism of those who live in the Australian Outback.  While Shute’s descriptions of the failings of the small town American perspective may seem heavy-handed and overstated to modern reders, we should remember that this book was published in 1956, written in 1955, and was based largely upon his observations during a trip to American in 1954, a decade before the massive civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

Shute was personally committed to reducing cultural and racial biases wherever he found them, whether he observed them in England or Australia or the United States.  The Chequer Board, published in 1947, represented Shute’s concerted attempt to break down the barriers of British racial and isolation and featured as principal characters a black American airman stationed in England during World War II and a Burmese woman who marries an officer of the Royal Air Force.  Other books in which Shute praises the virtues of racial and cultural diversity include Round the Bend, A Town Like Alice, and In the Wet.  It is evident that he felt that such a message was appropriate for American audiences as well, which he provided in Beyond the Black Stump.

In the other two books in which American characters appear as major figures, On the Beach and Trustee from the Toolroom, members of middle class society do not play significant parts.  Commander Dwight Towers, the captain of the American submarine Scorpion in On the Beach (1957), is a professional military man whom Shute portrays in a sympathetic light, and the descriptions of Seattle and the neighboring Puget Sound communities desolated by radiation sickness are colored with a note of awesome sadness, as is the Australian countryside.

Some of the action in Trustee From the Toolroom (1958) also takes place in the Pacific Northwest.  But here again the main characters are not at all representative of the American middle class.  In this novel, two influential industrialists provide life-saving physical and economic assistance to an English engineer as he attempts to return home from an epic journey to the exotic islands of the South Pacific.  One industrialist is from Tacoma, the other from the Midwest; both, however, display traits of the self-made successes of the American free enterprise system, traits Shute obviously admires.

Of all his novels with American episodes and characters, only Beyond the Black Stump directly examines the essential nature of one aspect of the American character.  And although it might be argued that Shute unfairly chooses a rather limited sample of American culture to hold up to scrutiny, no one should deny the accuracy of his observations.  And it should be especially discomforting to realize that even now, over twenty-five years after the book’s initial publication, the parochial attitudes and prejudicial views it illustrates have not much diminished.

 

Works Cited  

Nevil Shute, Requiem for a Wren (Heinemann, 1954; Pan Books, 1976), p. 194.  References to the Pan Book edition.

Nevil Shute, Beyond the Black Stump (Heinemann, 1956; Ballantine Books, 1966), p. 17.  References to the Ballantine Books edition.

Julian Smith, Nevil Shute.