Sir, this is a little late, but...
Book Report - Trustee from the Toolroom
a novel by Nevil Shute
I'm pretty sure that I had to read this book in high school. If my assumption is correct I was probably assigned a paper or book report or essay on the book—and, I probably pulled together a very feeble attempt at whatever it is I was called upon to do. Such was the experience that I had no recollection of the book at all, and have assumed all along that it was about some prison trustee and bad experiences in the prison toolroom. Let the record be set straight. Here is an updated version of that book report, having just finished the book last night.
Keith Stewart was content. He loved his life—at the beginning of this book and at its end. One might imagine that with all he experienced in eighty days in his forty third year of life that he might emerge from it all a changed man. The reader is not left to that conclusion at all.
Stewart lived in a middle class suburb of London (Ealing) in a typically modest middle class home, in a typically middle class manner. He was an engineer—of miniatures. He created engines, clocks, turbines and the like in a small workshop in the converted ground floor scullery, and wrote articles for a trade magazine about these creations. In the evenings he answered the piles of correspondence from around the globe that came from folk who loved miniatures as he did. His yearly income was about $3,000. His wife worked in a drapery shop adding a little more to their paycheck to support their very modest lifestyle.
This life took a twist when his sister and husband decided to sail half way around the world and wished to leave their school age daughter with Keith and Katie. To sum up the plot; the sailing adventure ends tragically in the Tuamoto Islands of Polynesia, a fortune that was to be the daughter's education and heritage was lost in the process, Stewart, trustee for young Janice, empties his bank account (all one hundred pounds of it) and makes his way to the wreck and recovers the fortune. He returns to Ealing, and returns to his toolroom, his magazine articles and correspondence. Katie no longer needs to work for the draper and helps Keith with his writing. End of story. Supremely Content is the way Shute puts it all in conclusion.
We knew Keith and Katie (and Janice) back in the 1970s in Nottingham. They were all around us, in the pubs, the lanes, the shops and streets of Beeston, and on the footpaths. The men in coats and ties, always, the women in simple dresses or house dresses—the children in their various school uniforms. These were the parents of the students we studied with and the folk we met in the many churches we visited. Nothing so crisp and bold as Ward and June Cleaver. What one realizes in reading "Trustee" is the depth of the folk one mostly took for granted and did not include in one's theological pondering. Stewart was an engineering genius. He aspired...to do his work with his full heart, mind and soul. No Gatsby. No Citizen Kane. More like George Bailey, but without the fanfare of town attention and adulation.
There were three other characters in the novel that particularly caught my attention. The first was Jack Donelly, the illiterate boat builder/sailor who haphazardly makes his way to his Polynesian ancestral islands and his own Wahine. Stewart might never have recovered the lost fortune had he remained with Donelly on the Mary Belle, but he never would have learned to eat fresh fish with corn fritters otherwise.
Dick King, a minor character, intrigued me in that his very hesitant minor role was the pivot point in the acceleration and completion of Keith's quest. You had the feeling that Dick might choose to join the carefree Donnelly onboard the Mary Belle, just to make sure Keith gets where he needs to go, but the story turns another very London foggy way and King fades into the background.
Then there is Julie Perlberg, the granddaughter of Sol Hirzhorn. She seems to be showcased in Shute's character list, yet plays no major role at all. What is her backstory? Holocaust survivor? Holocaust orphan? Illegitimate offspring? Something else? She is the wise owl of the book as it runs up to its conclusion, yet she would hardly be billed with her boss as a star character.
I wonder if Donelly, King and Julie represent for Shute the kind of middle class folk who are the real stars and champions of life. You might think that Peterson, the skipper of the Flying Cloud, or Chuck Ferris, or Sol Hirzhorn, or even Keith's doomed sister and RN brother-in-law might be the co-stars; but they are mostly accessories to the plot.
In the end this book is about a fellow who emerges from his toolroom long enough to touch the stars and then returns to the life he has always sought and has always loved. He is a typical hero of Shute novels; in the good company of Dr. Carl Zinter from The Far Country, the Corbetts, to whom much happened, and the WREN Janet Prentice, whose requiem Shute plays so beautifully.