Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Have you yearned for a discussion – with someone who would be interesting as well as interested? Having lunch with your smart, serious, sensible old Uncle could be a tonic – especially if he is of the old school British.

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew is someone you would want in your life – if only to call now and then for advice, or to be with to remind yourself that the civilized world still exists.    But, just like your “Dutch Uncle,” Major Pettigrew is more than he seems, and Simonson expertly introduces you to the weaknesses and pride countered by his loyalty and good heart.

In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the Major – retired military widower – has just suffered the death of his younger brother.   His loss is appropriately and respectfully acknowledged with some stinging asides in the Major’s thoughts about his relatives that will bring a smile to anyone who has had the experience.

A pair of antique shooting pistols fuel the action. The Major sentimentally wants to reunite the pair, divided on the death of his father between his now dead brother and himself – to be reunited and passed on through the generations.   Seems this is not in writing, so the rest of the family has already planned the profit from their sale.

Most of the characters meet the stereotype they are meant to be: the Major’s dead brother’s wife, prone to hysteria and greed; his son, striving to be modern and dismiss his father as stuffy; the gold-digging, gorgeous, shrewd American PR fiancée; and the American mogul intent on commercializing an old country village for his own profit.   But Simonson cleverly adds dimension to the key supports – giving them strength from good example and lessons learned from the principals – Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali.

In Mrs. Ali, newly widowed herself, an insatiable reader and lover of truth and beauty, the Major finds a soul-mate.   As she suffers the ignorant prejudice of the local women busy-bodies, Mrs. Ali quietly and wisely becomes the stabilizing force in the Major’s life – forcing him to be the man he only pretends to be.

The story seems all quite British in the beginning, and you might think you are settling into a cozy read by the fire – think again.   Unexpected crisis in routine events will keep you wondering if your predictions for the Major were really correct – they probably are – but Simonson cleverly pulls you back now and then to wonder.    Bucolic scenes of tea and scones are balanced with pre-schoolers running into blasts from a duck-shoot, a riot at a country club dance between insensitive Brits and Pakistani still stinging from the horrors of Partition, and a crazed octogenarian woman wielding a weapon.

Major Pettigrew does have a last stand, and it’s more literal than you’d expect.    Simonson melds her British humor with American drama, and you’ll keep the characters in mind long after you’ve finished reading, and wonder how they are getting on.