Nevil Shute's 'On the Beach': What's it all about? | Guest View
Last updated 7/31/2017 at Noon
I was delighted to read Brian Soergel’s article on Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” (“U.S. Submarine Scorpion calling Edmonds,” July 20). Shute has always been a favorite author of mine, and years ago I used to teach an English course based on “On the Beach” and Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons.”
If that seems an odd combination, beneath the story of the book and the play is also a drama about self-determination and facing the job at hand.
(By the way, “On the Beach” is not the only Shute novel to find settings in the U.S. “Beyond the Black Stump” takes place in a thinly disguised La Grande, Oregon. My parents met Shute when he visited the Wallowa Mountains for two summers.
The book paints a somewhat unflattering portrait of small-town America and, after its publication, certain members of the town’s dignitaries made it rather clear that Shute would not be welcome again.)
More about Shute’s background is in order.
Shute was an aircraft engineer, and among his earliest accomplishments was working on the first (and only) British dirigible to cross the Atlantic. During WWII, Shute was involved in highly classified aircraft and weapons development. Novel-writing emerged during the dirigible and war days as a hobby to take his mind off his work.
Shute's first really successful novel was “What Happened to the Corbetts” (U.S.title: “Ordeal”), written in 1938, which like “On the Beach” was a well-informed warning of the possibilities of modern war.
In “What Happened to the Corbetts,” Shute’s lifetime theme emerged: The book is the story of an ordinary man and his wife in unordinary circumstances, in this case, the bombing of Southampton by an unnamed enemy (clearly Germany).
The city is largely destroyed, and Corbett and his family take refuge on their sailboat, eventually finding their way to France, where Corbett joins the Royal Navy.
Plain people doing their best was to be a major theme in all of Shute’s subsequent books, of which there were, happily, many. His wartime books are perhaps the best portrayal of what life was like in England at war, in all cases told through the experiences of people connected with the Navy of the Royal Air Force pilots, WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and plain, everyday people.
The books are well worth reading even today, either for their history, or for their simple power of storytelling, and they form a wonderful background for “Dunkirk,” now showing at the Edmonds Theater.
Shute’s later books divide into novels about people rebuilding lives after the war (usually in Australia) among which “The Chequer Board” stands out and inspiring stories of “everyday” people triumphing over adversity, as in “Trustee from the Toolroom.”
“On the Beach” was another “warning” novel.
But the book also carries Shute’s old theme of ordinary people rising to the occasion or to their duty, and also the important theme of achieving grace through self-knowledge. The characters, all faced with inevitable death within a short period, all find grace in the knowledge, and dedicate the remainder of their lives to doing things they had always wanted to do.
One realizes a lifelong desire to drive in a Grand Prix race, another stops drinking and finds herself by studying to become a secretary. Another, a farmer, simply chooses to live to the end the way he always has, caring for his farm and animals.
And the American submarine captain finds peace and purpose in obeying “Uncle Sam” even when he is the only remaining U.S. Navy officer. As in Soergel’s essay, he scuttles his ship because a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine should not be left unguarded. It’s a somber book, but there is inspiration in it as well as it asks: “What in your life is really worth doing, what do you believe in?”
All of Shute’s 25 novels are easily available through Amazon, both in print and on Kindle. A top recommendation for a first-time Shute reader would be “A Town Like Alice,” also a fine multipart BBC film.
Shute’s favorite? He considered “Round the Bend” to be his best novel.