By Carolyn Williams
Helen Simonson’s first novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” captures with perfect aplomb the struggle between reverence for the tried and true and the indefatigable powers of change. Major Ernest Pettigrew (a 68-year-old resident of Edgecombe St. Mary, Sussex) is forced to face this challenge head-on, shaking things up just when he thought that his life had settled into the quiet rhythm of old age.
Major Pettigrew has just received word that his brother has passed away, news which is both personally saddening and a forceful reminder of his own mortality. He is physically rattled by his grief when he happens across the recently widowed Mrs. Ali. Despite the Major’s qualms about sharing his family’s business with a stranger, he finds himself talking to Mrs. Ali, a local shopkeeper and one of the only Muslim women in town. The two discuss their late spouses and their love of Kipling, forming an immediate bond of friendship which quickly develops into something more.
The Major is generally dissatisfied with the direction in which his town—and on a more macrocosmic level, the world—is moving. He is a man of principles, and to see them shattered by the local townspeople’s greed his contemporaries’ disrespect for the traditions he continues to live by and his shallow son Roger’s social climbing is a trial even for Major Pettigrew’s stiff upper lip. Mrs. Ali is a woman of immense tact and understanding, which the Major appreciates, but the townsfolk begin to whisper nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the Pettigrew family is in the midst of a serious debate over a pair of rare Churchill guns, passed down to the Major and his late brother by their father. The Major is adamant about maintaining the guns as part of the family’s legacy, but the younger generation is equally invested in selling them for a profit. Caught between tradition and the wishes of the rest of the family, the Major realizes that his son has fallen far short of his well-meant, but somewhat antiquated, expectations, and that his own motivations in wanting the gun might be somewhat questionable as well.
Everything comes to an unpleasant head when the town golf club, white members only, of course, decides to show their cultural acceptance by hosting a woefully tacky and inevitably offensive “Mughal Empire”-themed event. The Major turns heads when he invites Mrs. Ali, for whom he is steadily developing serious romantic inclinations. Things go horribly awry on all counts, and the remainder of the book deals with the fallout from the ill-fated dinner party.
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. Simonson’s smart prose gives her work the feel of a novel of manners to make Jane Austen proud. The Major himself is a perfect construction of tact, intractability and wonderfully sarcastic dry humor. The blossoming romance between the major and Mrs. Ali is artfully done without becoming crude or unbelievable. Simonson’s commentary on societal changes and the challenges of small town thinking is apt, making “Major Pettigrew” a force to be reckoned with.