By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Peter Altschuler
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is a love story but it is also a story about an age demographic inelegantly called the 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. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is Helen Simonson’s literary debut. The book begins like a locomotive chugging up hill and ends as a journey well taken.
Though Major Pettigrew is a retired English military officer, widowed and living in a small town in England, he represents what American baby boomers emulate and denigrate. Pettigrew believes in an internalized moral code and endeavors to live by it. Emulation comes from “boomers” that see 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.
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. An “other directed” person’s 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’s conduct follows an “inner directed” code based on personal life experience. It is less malleable and relatively independent of social influence. This difference creates conflict.
One of Simonson’s examples of father/son conflict is 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 who 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 the couple’s home purchase is based on an image of English noblesse oblige; not the substance of a home. The son compounds “boomer” generation “other directness” when he drops his American fiancé to court an English aristocrat because she offers higher social and financial status. Major Pettigrew is mystified by his son’s vapid change of heart.
The climax of Sorenson’s 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, one of the antique guns. He also rescues his paramour from 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. Major Pettigrew would apparently agree.