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?



  1. Lovely review – the book is one of my favourites too. I can’t think of any books with characters with this sort of competence offhand, but wanted to mention the term “competence p*rn” which I’ve seen used in discussions of romance novels where there’s a focus on a character’s competence.

    • I’ve seen that term used too, and I am completely on board with it.

  2. Sounds charming

  3. I love this book.

    I love it because it’s about decent people doing decent things. He’s not a Mary Sue where everyone loves him on first sight – most of the time they’re worried he’s going to die on his impossible quest. But because he was decent in his job, people want to help him.

    It’s also an excellent example of six degrees of separation long before we had a name for it. He knows someone who knows someone who…and in the end, everyone is happier and he does exactly what he set out to do.

    I always think it’s a shame that in this country we know Nevil Shute for On the Beach – which is a great book but so different from the majority of his books- A Town Like Alice, The Chequerboard, Beyond the Black Stump.

    Off to Gutenberg Canada.

    • Yeah, the six degrees of separation thing is great, as is the thing where he doesn’t even know how many people know him–the way he’ll walk into a workshop and people will be like, “the Keith Stewart?”

      I need to explore more Nevil Shute, and On The Beach is actually the book that’s stopped me from doing so, because it’s the most famous and it sounds depressing.

  4. Much more current – probably 1990s but I remember “Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn” as a great example of competency.

  5. Mel, you’ve highlighted one of my favourites, too! I suspect what appeals to you is the down-to-earth competece of Keith, who steps up without any fuss to uncomplainingly take on his responsibilities.

    While they are more modern, and have more of an adventure focus, you might enjoy some of Desmon Bagley’s work – e.g. Landslide – and that of Gavin Lyall, e.g. The Most Dangerous Game.

    If you want to stick to public domain books, you want to venture into the Western genre, how about one of Zane Grey’s – e.g. “Desert Gold”.

    Meanwhile, for competence – how about “Crusoe of Lonesome Lake”, by Leland Stowe… available secondhand.

    • Yeah, definitely his total disinterest in making a big deal about anything is part of what I love.

      Thanks for the recommendations–especially Crusoe of Lonesome Lake. I love wilderness survival stories.

  6. By the way, Gutenberg Canada also has Darkness at Pemberly by TH White which is White’s continuation of the Darcy family told years before anyone else thought to do it.

    • Huh. That’s really interesting. T.H. White would not have been my first guess for something like that. Is it any good?

  7. Reading about people doing work competently and wisely is exactly why I loved and still love reading the Little House series.

    If you haven’t yet read it, I think you would also enjoy Shute’s A Town Like Alice, which tells the story of a young Englishwoman who inherits a windfall and moves to Australia, where she singlehandedly spruces up a small town by starting several successful businesses in memory of an Australian soldier who saved her life in Malaysia during WWII. Her entrepreneurship and adaptability are fun to read about.

    • That sounds excellent, and full of things I like.

      I like the Little House books very selectively–there were only two that I reread to any extent–but I’ve been thinking about revisiting them.

  8. Not sure if you watch videos, but if you do, and haven’t already watched it, grab a copy of “Alone in the Wilderness” from your library. This is the story of Dick Proenneke, who moved to the wilds of Alaska in the 1960’s. He crafted a cabin using just an axe and chisels, and built a life there, observing the flora and fauna. What is remarkable is that not only did he thrive there, but he documented his experiences, as he went, on 16MM film. If you can imagine Keith in the wild, and as someone handy with an axe rather than a lathe, then this is perfect for you!

  9. Competence is an immensely appealing quality. I married a man who can chop down a tree, re-wire a house, run a generator, even milk a cow.

  10. Did you ever go back to Shute? You might like “No Highway”.

    • I have not gone back to Shute yet, but I absolutely will at some point.

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