Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

Chequer Board

"The Chequerboard"

By Bill McCandless

Jackie Turner, bothered by a head wound acquired during the War, is told by doctors that he has less than a year to live. Since his discharge he has travelled as a cereal salesman and has let his marriage to Mollie become a thing of convenience with little common interest. After breaking the news they discuss the prospects and Jackie discloses a curiosity about three men with whom he spent weeks in a military hospital, while all recovered from injuries. The serious nature of Turner's head injury prompted doctors to request that the others read or talk to him to stimulate brain function. During these long discussions, the men had related much about their private lives and their present plight. Turner regrets having lost track of the men and is concerned about their welfare. The novel evolves with his search for them and their position on the chequer board of life.

The only officer, besides Jackie, was a flyer who had married an immature, selfish young actress who soon cheated on him and asked for a divorce while he was away at War. The second man, Duggie Brent, a paratrooper Corporal, was being court-marshalled for the accidental murder of a civilian during a fight outside a pub. The third man was an American negro stationed in England, who had cut his own throat when he was accused of attempted rape by a white English girl. Jackie himself, at the time of his injury, was under military arrest for stealing sugar for a black market operation. Only the flying officer was a free man at the time, and Jackie characterizes his position as the "most awful mess of any of us".

Starting with F.O.Phillip Morgan, Turner finds the sister and mother of the man in their Kensington, London home. There they relate that Phillip had left England for Burma after his discharge, and reportedly had married a native and lived at a remote village named Mandinaung, They feared that he must be in desparate straights and too embarassed to return. When Jackie decides to fly to Burma he finds that Morgan is a respected member of the community with a charming wife who is educated and speaks English better than he does. They relate how they met when Morgan was a downed English flyer and she fought with her family against the Japanese invaders. Their love and respect for each other had blossomed then and when Morgan was discharged, he returned to claim Nay Htohn as his wife. He had become a contractor and was instrumental in re-building the war ravaged area. They live in a comfortable, even luxurious by English standards, home which they had built after two years in a smaller native style home which they now use as a garage.

Shute uses the notes and observations acquired during his assignment in the Spring of 1945 as a journalist for the Ministry of Information Department in Southeast Asia as the basis for the war episode and the description of the Buddhist religion as it relates to the story. It is interesting to note that none of the articles he created during that period ever gained the light-of-day of government publication They obviously did not reflect an attitude that his superiors wanted to portray regarding British involvement in the War. In "Flight of Fancy" James Riddell discloses that the model for Phillip Morgan and his lovely wife was most probably Theo Meier and his native wife Made' Pigi of Isen Balat, Bali. This may be Mr. Riddell's guess, but the flight took place 2 years after Chequer Board was published.

Before returning to England, Turner has a migraine attack and while he recovers Morgan tells what he heard from an American flyer friend about the negro, Dave Leisurer. He learned that Dave had been awed by the beauty of the English girl, Grace Trefusis, and had been unable to begin a friendly discourse leading to an introduction. When he moved to hold her and kiss her, he so alarmed the girl, who was just sixteen at the time, that she screamed and ran away. The M.P.'ps took this as attempted rape and chased Dave for two hours till they discovered him hiding near the barracks. The panicked young soldier from Tennessee cuts his throat in fear of the consequences. As the charges are brought forward, a local Innkeeper Mr. Frobisher, writes a letter to General Eisenhower that explains the charges against the young negro soldier and asks that the Americans not rush to judgment. A Major Curtis investigates the case and finds that Gracie does not want to press charges after all. Dave's unit is transferred and the situation is defused. This incident was probably modeled after reports by Walter White, Secretary of the NAACP,which came into Mr Shutes hands in 1946.

Upon returning to England Jackie's health begins to deteriorate more rapidly, but he is determined to find out what happened to the paratrooper. The murder charge was set in Civil Court and Jackie gains access to the legal records through a lawyer friend. He discovers that the case went to trial and Duggie was defended by one of the officers who trained young men to become killers in their preparation for War. During an emotional description of their training, first with rifles and bayonets, then knives and grenades and flamethrowers and Sten guns, then with their bare hands and silence; the Officer easily convinces the jury that this was not an act of first degree murder. The verdict of manslaughter with discharge and a short prison term results in Duggie's freedom and after more inquiries Turner finds that until recently he had worked as a stunt motorcycle driver who tests "The Wall of Death" in a travelling Circus.

In this interesting and sensitive novel, Mr. Shute develops a full length portrait of the uncommon little man who is its hero. He also instructs the reader in walking the tolerant path toward another major religion. As an added bonus Mr. Shute introduces us to a consideration of a human ethic for mankind. The peacetime hero theme is covered in more depth perhaps in No Highway, and Trustee; the oneness of all religious systems is treated with greater power in Round the Bend and Black Stump; and the subject of a personal morality given more intense light in Requiem and On the Beach; but this moving story involves the reader in Shute's mind on all three subjects. As a dedicated professional writer by this time, he gives notice that intolerance, bigotry, and injustice will be favored targets of his skill in the future.

In the anticlimactic conclusion that Shute fans have come to expect and adore, Jackie Turner and Mollie find Dave Leisurer has returned to England, gotten a good job as a draftsman, married Gracie, and has a beautiful mulatto baby. Duggie is employed as a meat vendor and delivers to the Penzance/Trenarth area where he and wife Phyllis have one baby with another on the way. Phillip Morgan's sister is amazed when Jackie tells her of her brother's situation and promises to go for a visit after the Mother passes. Jackie keeps his condition secret and calmly reminds everyone that, "It will all be the same in 100 years"

In a letter written just before his death in 1960, Mr. Shute admits he thought that his handling of the racial issues would ruin book sales in America. But as sales soared in 1947, he and Mrs. Shute toured the US on Greyhound buses and in local restaurants to avoid the usual promotional hoopla and "get in touch with the man on the street". He found the American attitude refreshing and learned a valuable lesson. As he stated in that letter, "Sincerity is the first attribute for making money in the business of writing novels."