The Chequer Board

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First edition

The Chequer Board is a novel by Nevil Shute, first published in the United Kingdom in 1947 by William Heinemann Ltd. The novel deals fairly with the question of racism within the US forces during World War II and portrays black characters with great sympathy and support.

Plot summary[edit]

"This novel may shock you, but not for any of the usual reasons. The clear vision of this swift-moving, heart-warming story will give you a glimpse of what the brotherhood of man might mean." - Dust-jacket, US Edition, 1947

It is a multi-part story telling of the experience of one John (Jackie) Turner, whom the doctors have given just one year to live due to injuries sustained in a wartime plane crash. Turner decides to use his remaining time to trace the men he got to know while recovering in hospital.

The men were:

  • Flying Officer Phillip Morgan - the plane's British pilot.
  • Corporal Duggie Brent - a young British Commando, accused of murder.
  • Pfc Dave Lesurier - a black American serviceman, accused of attempted rape, in hospital after cutting his own throat while being pursued.

As the story unfolds, we learn that charges against Lesurier were dropped after an Army investigation and that he later returned to the English town near which he was stationed during the war. He marries the girl he was courting and becomes a draughtsman. Brent is acquitted of murder but served six months for manslaughter after a brilliantly defended court-martial. He is later found living close to Lesurier and working as a meat vendor. Morgan relocates to Burma and becomes a successful businessman, married into a strong local community.

Turner is contented by the thought that each man, who had helped with his recovery after the plane crash, had succeeded in making a good life in his own way. The novel ends with what will be his last visit to the medical specialist.

Underlying the novel is the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and redemption. Despite his shady past, it is indicated that Turner, through his attempts to help his fellow patients and his acceptance of his death, has moved closer to Nirvana.

Production[edit]

The book's title is taken from Stanza XLIX of Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Khayyám:

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Shute began writing The Chequer Board September 1945 and completed it February 1946.[1] The portions of the book that take place in Burma were based on his own experiences there during World War II.[1] From the dust-jacket: "It was very difficult to feel these cultured brown girls, all speaking excellent English...were really any different from the girls at home."

He also noted during the war the "popularity of American Negroes in England and the superior quality of the Burmese people," both of which are central to the book's story.[2]

Reception[edit]

Shute was concerned that sales of the book in the United States would be negatively impacted by the book's open-minded handling of racial issues; as it turned out, sales soared.[3] Shute and his wife traveled the U.S. on Greyhound buses to "get in touch with the man on the street," finding the experience refreshing. Afterwards he wrote "Sincerity is the first attribute for making money in the business of writing novels."[3]

Reviews[edit]

  • Punch "As a novelist, Nevil Shute goes from strength to strength, experimenting, drawing out life as he sees it, and setting it before us in ordered pattern...The Chequer Board is a notable novel."[4]
  • Daily Express "A happy knack endows this story with a character who is slightly greater than life-size. It proves once again how the ordinary, the average, the season-ticket holder sitting next to you, can still, in the hands of an expert, furnish the very stuff of literature"[4]
  • The New York Times “Shute’s most significant book.”[5]
  • Houston Post “In the gripping, breathless tradition of a master craftsman.”[5]
  • Kirkus Reviews "In itself, each story has values, but the whole lacks the sense of suspense one looks for in Shute."[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Timeline, 1941-1950". nevilshute.org. Retrieved 24 March 2013. 
  2. ^ Dust-jacket, US Edition, 1947. 
  3. ^ a b "Book Review By Bill McCandless". nevilshute.org. Retrieved 24 March 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "The Chequer Board (Vintage Classics)". amazon.com. Retrieved 24 March 2012. 
  5. ^ a b "Random House - Praise". randomhouse.com. Retrieved 24 March 2013. 
  6. ^ "Editorial Review - Kirkus Reviews". books.google.com. Retrieved 25 March 2013.