The best books on 20th Century Borneo

Who am I?

Judith M. Heimann grew up in New York City, where her father and both his brothers were newspapermen. She lived in Borneo in the mid-1960s with her American diplomat husband John Heimann, and their school-age children. In Borneo, she made lifelong friends of Tom Harrisson, his then-wife Barbara, and indigenous people she later wrote about. After a career in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as a US diplomat alongside her husband, in retirement she became a nonfiction writer and went back to Borneo several times to research her books, help on tv documentaries, and celebrate anniversaries of important wartime dates there; she still remembers the names of the people, the songs, the carvings and paintings, and especially the way the local people met her and her family more than halfway. 


I wrote...

The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life

By Judith M. Heimann,

Book cover of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life

What is my book about?

Sir David Attenborough describes Tom Harrisson as a... “Explorer, museum curator, guerilla fighter, pioneer sociologist, documentary filmmaker, anthropologist--Tom Harrisson was all these things. He was also arrogant, choleric, swashbuckling, often drunk, and nearly always deliberately outrageous. In spite of these contradictions, he became a key figure in every enterprise he undertook. Judith Heimann describes how he did so. A brilliant and insightful biography.”  

Seeking to do justice to Harrisson’s remarkable life, Heimann interviewed hundreds of Harrisson’s friends, colleagues, rivals, and enemies on four continents. Harrisson won the DSO for running the most successful guerilla war in Borneo against the Japanese with the help of ANZUS soldiers and blow-piping, headhunting Borneo tribespeople.  

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Town Like Alice

Judith M. Heimann Why did I love this book?

The first half of this book is a fictionalized account of a true story of colonial women and children who had been en route under Japanese guard to a World War II prison camp in Malaya. When their Japanese guard died before they found the camp, the women and children were now without an escort, and were in effect prisoners of their own inability to manage by themselves in the jungles of inland Malaya. Under a competent, courageous young Englishwomen, they found shelter in a Malay village, where they had to learn to make themselves welcome guests to villagers who had barely enough to survive on without these additional mouths to feed. The tact and forbearance on both sides is what makes this a moving, hard to forget, story by one of Australia’s best-loved novelists.

By Nevil Shute,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Town Like Alice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language... remarkable' Guardian

Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins.

When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle - an experience that leads to the deaths of many.

Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners…


Book cover of Land Below the Wind

Judith M. Heimann Why did I love this book?

A charming memoir by the wife of a British colonial officer of living with her husband and child in what is now Sabah and part of Malaysia but was then (the 1930s) known as British North Borneo. Keith’s writing voice has a gentle tone that shows off her tact and wisdom in helping her family lead a happy life where there was plenty of household help but also unabating tropical heat and humidity and almost none of the amenities they would have had at Home in England.

By Agnes Keith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Land Below the Wind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book was written during an era when Sabah was known as North Borneo, and when life was very much different from today s. Reprinted many times, this classic, of Agnes Keith s observations and reflections of the time, is a true-to-life record of society and culture then and of the captivating natural beauty of Sabah. Today, Sabah continues to be known as the land below the wind , a phrase used by seafarers in the past to describe all the lands south of the typhoon belt, but which Agnes effectively reserved for Sabah through her book. One of few…


Book cover of Three Came Home

Judith M. Heimann Why did I love this book?

Again, it’s Agnes Keith, but this time using her gentle voice to describe the trials that she, her husband, and their son and their neighbors and friends endured during their stays in Japanese World War II prison camps in tropical Borneo. One critic wonderingly comments about this book that it “records but never renders pain, observes human nature but never attacks any individual” and concludes “the author’s writing is restrained and touching.”

By Agnes Keith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Three Came Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the Japanese take Borneo in 1942, Agnes Keith is captured and imprisoned with her two-year-old son. Fed on minimal rations, forced to work through recurrent bouts of malaria and fighting with rats for scraps of food, Agnes Keith's spirit never completely dies. Keeping notes on scraps of paper which she hides in her son's home-made toys or buries in tins, she records a mother's pain at watching her child go hungry and her poignant pride in his development within these strange confines. She also describes her captors in all their complexity. Colonel Suga, the camp commander, is an intelligent,…


Book cover of A Stroll Through Borneo

Judith M. Heimann Why did I love this book?

This book, by a well-born English friend of mine, was written when he was young and fancy free; he was then (in 1978) accurately described on the book jacket as a cheerful young man “who greets each new acquaintance and experience with enormous enthusiasm” as he makes his way alone, without fuss (while making local indigenous friends along the way) for five months through what was then one of the last remaining wild spots in the world. 

By James Barclay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Stroll Through Borneo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Stroll Through Borneo [hardcover] Barclay, James [Mar 01, 1980]


You might also like...

At What Cost, Silence?

By Karen Lynne Klink,

Book cover of At What Cost, Silence?

Karen Lynne Klink Author Of At What Cost, Silence?

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Child abuse survivor Reader Adventure traveler Animal lover

Karen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Secrets, misunderstandings, and a plethora of family conflicts abound in this historical novel set along the Brazos River in antebellum Washington County, East Texas.

It is a compelling story of two neighboring plantation families and a few of the enslaved people who serve them. These two plantations are a microcosm of a country on the brink of war, encompassing a variety of issues: love and friendship between men, relationships between fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, slavery, and the position of women in society.

At What Cost, Silence?

By Karen Lynne Klink,

What is this book about?

Adrien Villere suspects he is not like other boys. For years, he desperately locks away his feelings and fears-but eventually, tragedy and loss drive him to seeking solace from his mentor, a young neighbor Jacob Hart. Jacob's betrayal of Adrien's trust, however, results in secret abuse, setting off a chain of actions from which neither Adrien's wise sister, Bernadette, nor his closest friend, Isaac, can turn him.

At What Cost, Silence presents two contrasting plantation families in a society where strict rules of belief and behavior are clear, and public opinion can shape an entire life. Centerstage are the Villeres,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Borneo, Southeast Asia, and prisoner of war?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Borneo, Southeast Asia, and prisoner of war.

Borneo Explore 19 books about Borneo
Southeast Asia Explore 34 books about Southeast Asia
Prisoner Of War Explore 76 books about prisoner of war