By Chet Yarbrough
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
By Helen Simonson
Narrated by Peter Altschuler
Helen Simonson (English author)
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is Helen Simonson’s literary debut. The book begins like a locomotive chugging up hill but ends as a journey well taken.
This is a love story. It is also a story about an age demographic inelegantly described as a “pig in the python”; i.e. baby boomers that are born after the end of WWII (between 1946 and 1964). Major Pettigrew is a fictional father of a baby boomer.
Pettigrew believes in an internalized moral code and endeavors to live by it. Emulation comes from one who sees a person act with reasoned opinions based on lived life. Denigration comes from “boomers” that see a person trapped in the past and unwilling to change with the times.
Though Major Pettigrew is a retired English military officer, widowed and living in a small town in England, he represents what human’s emulate and denigrate.
Pettigrew’s adult son is what David Reisman, in “The Lonely Crowd”, calls an “other directed” person that lives by a code based on perceived values of the day. The code is highly malleable. It is created by friends, family, business and societal influence. The son’s conduct changes with his perception of other’s beliefs. In contrast, the Major lives by an internalized code based on personal life experience. This difference creates conflict.
One of Simonson’s examples of father/son conflict is in the sale of a matched set of antique guns.
The son wants to sell; the father does not. The son acts from consciousness of societal norms that value things in dollars and cents. The father acts from consciousness of what the guns mean to him in life experience.
Simonson creates a love story that makes the same point. Jasmina Ali comes into Major Pettigrew’s life. She is a Pakistani widow at age 50, several years younger than the Major. The son is shocked by his father’s dalliance with a non-English widow. His son is more concerned about how the village views the relationship than how his father feels.
Simonson elaborates on this view of love by showing the son engaged to a young American woman that idealizes the English countryside. She envisions having an idyllic country refuge, away from the city, to emulate English aristocracy. The American asks the son to co-purchase a cottage near his father. Major Pettigrew sees that the purchase is based on an image of English nobles oblige; not the substance of a home.
The son compounds “boomer” generation “other directness”. He changes his mind based on what society may think of him. He distances himself from his American fiancé to court an English aristocrat. The aristocrat offers higher social and financial reputation. Major Pettigrew is mystified by his son’s fickle change of heart.
The climax of this story is skewed toward an appreciation of the “inner directed” nature of Major Pettigrew. Major Pettigrew acts with courage and conviction to save a life, though it costs one of his beloved personal possessions. He also rescues his paramour from the refuse of English and Pakistani prejudice. Pettigrew makes his “…Last Stand”.
In 1950, David Reisman writes in “The Lonely Crowd” that “other directness” is a symptom of a civilization’s incipient decline.