Saturday, October 29, 2016

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew is a 68 year-old widower. His beloved wife Nancy has been gone for six years. His father was a British military officer stationed in Lahore, India in the last days before the partition of India and Pakistan in the 1940s. On his deathbed, his father's last wish was for each son to have one of a pair of valuable Churchill guns, and pledge to reunite the pair for future generations of Pettigrews. For many years, the Major has been bitter about the splitting of the pair of guns, but his brother has refused to sell it to him, and now his brother has died suddenly. The day he learns of the death, Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shop owner in his little village of Edgecombe St. Mary, has come to collect payment for his newspaper. She finds him about to collapse, and makes him tea. Thus is their friendship born.

As the Major and Mrs. Ali grow their friendship over Sundays discussing Kipling, and teas at the local seaside, Mrs. Ali learns that her very religious, Islamic nephew, who has just come to work in her shop, is the father of George, a little boy in the village. She has never had children, and she is delighted to have the boy and his mother move in with her. Nothing, however, is ever simple in an English village. The members of his local golf club do not look kindly at the Major's growing involvement with Mrs. Ali and her family, often sounding as if it were the 19th century, not the 21st. In a tragic-comic scene, the village ladies have made the last days before partition the theme of the yearly dinner dance at the golf club. Cavalierly mixing up Indian histories of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the ladies fail to realize the effect playing out the scene of a massacre aboard a train would have on the caterer's elderly Pakistani father who as child experienced the death of his family aboard this train. A riot ensues as the drunken English fight the alarmed waiters and dancers. Meanwhile, the Major's grown son, who works in finance in London, and who, at times, comes across as crass and mercenary, wants to be part of the upper crust so badly, he tries to get his "elderly" dad to sell the valuable guns to help him buy his way further into "The City."

Simonson shows us that often people have hidden depths, and that humans, no matter their race or religion, are capable of great love and great change, at any age. That Simonson is able to capture the great commitment to history and ancestry embodied in an English village and at the same time capture its shallow, fearful prejudices and sometimes humorous foibles, is a tribute to her incredible talent. Very few modern authors are capable of reaching this high water mark. Helen Simonson is one of them.

Print Length: 379 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (February 20, 2010)
Publication Date: March 2, 2010
Sold by: Random House LLC

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