Archive for October 27th, 2015


Trustee from the Toolroom

October 27, 2015

Yesterday I discovered Gutenberg Canada. How I managed to overlook its existence until now, I’m not sure. But it’s there, and it has lots of cool stuff, and I don’t really care that I’m probably not supposed to be accessing it from the US.

One of the cool things it has is Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute, which is one of my favorite books. When I saw that it was there, I almost started crying, mostly because it’s been that kind of month, but also because I love it a lot.

When I was in college, a read a post on someone’s blog about the fictional characters you love and support unconditionally. Not necessarily the ones who are always right, or most lovable, but the ones to whom you want to say, “if that’s what you want, I want you to have it.” Even if it’s not what’s best for them. The blogger mentioned Keith Stewart, the protagonist of Trustee from the Toolroom, as being one of those characters for her, so I looked up the book. My school library had a copy. I borrowed it.

Some books, when you read them, become a part of you, you know?

Keith Stewart is a quiet, self-effacing man. He works as a mechanic until after World War II. Then he manages to make his hobby — miniature, working models of machinery — into a full time job. He doesn’t make very much money at it, but he’s happy.

For me, the two most important parts of this book — aside from every time anyone is a little starstruck on meeting Keith — are where he is at the beginning and where he is at the end. There’s a quote at the beginning, about three paragraphs in: “He was a quick worker and a ready writer upon technical matters, and he delighted in making little things that worked. He had now so ordered his life that he need do nothing else.” It makes me tear up a little every time. His wife, Katie, is sort of similar. She works in a shop, more because she likes it than because she needs to. Both of them are impractical about things that don’t directly touch them, but that’s okay. They’re fine. They’re more than fine; they’re good.

But then Keith’s sister and brother-in-law leave their daughter in Keith and Katie’s care while they sail across the Atlantic, and it…doesn’t go well. Keith finds himself in the position of having to get himself halfway across the world, and having almost no money to do it with.

It’s kind of a fairy tale, this story, because if the structure and because of the way the world works. Keith has a quest to complete before he can return home, and it breaks itself into a number of different tasks — supplying provisions for a boat, inspecting a lumber mill — doing things for people who can get him where he needs to go. His area of expertise is sort of narrow, but it works for him, partly because this takes place in a universe with a comfortable underlying morality. Keith gets what he deserves, in a way that will make you feel good about the world. And maybe that’s most of the appeal — that and the pleasure of reading about a person who’s very good at something, described in enough detail to be convincing. Competence is so nice to read about, and Keith Stewart is so good at what he does, and so conscientious, and yeah, I unconditionally support him, too.

Does anyone want to recommend books about people who are very good at their jobs?