The best books on 20th Century Borneo

Judith M. Heimann Author Of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life
By Judith M. Heimann

The Books I Picked & Why

A Town Like Alice

By Nevil Shute

Book cover of A Town Like Alice

Why 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.


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Land Below the Wind

By Agnes Keith

Book cover of Land Below the Wind

Why 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.


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Three Came Home

By Agnes Keith

Book cover of Three Came Home

Why 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.”


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A Stroll Through Borneo

By James Barclay

Book cover of A Stroll Through Borneo

Why 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. 


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