Even stodgy old Brits can be endearing -Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

July 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Cover of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A...

Cover of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, Published in 2010

It was a sweet story that plays a bit with the issues of racism, classism and generation gaps.  But it is light-handed and would be a good vacation read.

I must first admit my bitterness. This is Helen Simonson’s first novel and she appears to be about my age. And all I could think when I found this out is “D*mn I wish I could write a book.”  But alas, my last attempt at writing a book was in 6th grade when I decided to write a companion piece to “Black Beauty” but about a dog named Blackie, who changes ownership multiple times and eventually is put out to pasture – like dogs are.  It was obviously very original and well illustrated as you can imagine.

But bitterness aside now to the book, Major Pettigrew has been a widower for 6 years and continues to live in the home he shared with his wife in a small English town. He is retired from the military and believes in tradition, manners and a good cup of tea.  His brother’s death, though shocking, leads him to believe he will inherit his brother’s antique Churchill rifle – which will reunite it with the one his father left him.  Major Pettigrew begins to immediately imagine how the local Lord of the Manor will view him and his stunning Churchill rifles, the matched set perfect together, at the next hunting outing. But alas, his sister-in-law along with his niece want to sell the pair to the highest bidder and this becomes a point of contention in the family. This part of the story is not as boring as it sounds.

Ms. Ali, the local shop owner and widow, who, though British born, is assumed to be foreign because her family is Pakistani.  She comes into the Major’s life on the first page of the novel knocking on his door, collecting money for the newspaper delivery.  Over time they come to develop a lovely friendship that involves Sundays discussing literature and walking in the park. They both finally realize how lonely and isolated they have been – both from the loss of a spouse but Ms. Ali’s isolation also stems from being the town token that no one pays attention to while she rings them up for their last minute milk purchase.

As their relationship grows into something more, they have to deal with friends and family who seem to like everyone in “their place” and are completely affronted by not just the autumn nature of the romance but the interracial element as well.  Ms. Ali and the Major are not the matching set of Churchill rifles that everyone would like them to be.  Things come to a head when Ms. Ali attends the Golf Club dance with the Major. The theme of the dance is “An Evening at the Mughal Court” and it is just as racist and hooky as the old British women can make it.  The result of the evening is Ms. Ali moving out of town and back in with her dead husband’s family which is, according to custom, where she belongs. The Major is then stuck in a situation where he has to decide between expectations (must the guns be a matched set?) and what he knows will make him happy – ultimately finding that what will make him happy is surprisingly also what is honorable.

Like I said this book was sweet.  But I found the fact that everyone in the Major’s life is a racist, even his 30 year old son and his son’s American girlfriend, really hard to believe.  The comments, the whispering, the fact that the Golf Club discussed asking the Major to revoke his membership just all seemed a bit too much to me.  England and Pakistan have a painful history and this changing relationship between the two countries has resulted in a large influx of Pakistani immigration in the last 50 years.  And as much as I can understand how that plays out in everyday life, I do. I also understand that this is set in a small town. Small American towns are not different.  But I felt like this writer had something to say about this cultural divide and so she forced such an extreme view to make a point. She also did the same with the character of the Major’s son, Roger. Making her commentary on the disrespectful thirty-somethings hard to read without cringing and wishing the scene would end. This made the book feel a little unreal and disjointed for me.

But all of that said, I think it is a nice read. And I read it with a cup of tea when I could. It just seemed appropriate and I think the Major would approve.

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Entry filed under: July 2011 reads. Tags: , .

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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