A White Hotel on a Tropical Island in a Time of War…

The Hotel des Indes, Batavia, during WWII. A white hotel on a tropical island, in a time of war. Does that remind you of anything?* _____ By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0.On this day in 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army captured Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta).

There was a very large contingent of Dutch women living in Batavia.  The Japanese sent their husbands to POW camps.  They rounded the women and their children up, and told them to march to another town, where there would be a camp for them.

The women set off with a few guards, carrying their luggage and children, to arrive at the next town.  The Japanese controlling that town sent them on to another town.

The women and their children would spend the next two years marching from town to town, across the country, being turned away by every Japanese commander who had no idea what to do with a contingent of civilians.  On the way ninety percent of them died–from disease, exhaustion and the complications that come from ceaseless walking in a tropical country, with inadequate food and shelter.

Several years after the war ended, one of the Dutch women met an English man at a London party, and told him about her war-time experience.

That Englishman was Nevil Shute.  He turned the Dutch woman’s story into a novel featuring English women in Malaysia and one woman in particular, Jean, who meets an Australian prisoner of war on the road, who helps her and her group survive.

The novel was A Town Like Alice, and it is one of my favourite novels ever.

The book is absolutely absorbing reading and a damned fine romance, too.

There was a movie made in 1964, that changed the British heroine and Australian hero to Americans, and cut the story off halfway through the book (conveniently cutting out all the Australian-set parts of the story).

In 1981, an Australian production company made a mini-series of the book, remaining faithful to Shute’s story.  It was a hum-dinger of a series and I watched it over and over (Bryan Brown was particularly easy on the eyes, back then).  However, a few years ago, when I was back in Australia, I slid the old VHS tapes into the player and tried to watch it again.

Oh my.  It hasn’t aged well!  We’re so used to fast, abbreviated, tightly edited story telling these days that the pace of the miniseries is…well, turtles would whip past with a finger out, in comparison.

But the book is still damned good reading.

And it was based on a true story, which is the amazing part.


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[*Hostage Crisis features hostages held in the Whitesands Hotel on Vistaria, in the middle of civil war.  The resemblance is purely coincidental!]

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