Keith Stewart, protagonist of Trustee from the Toolroom, is one of Shute’s ordinary men who become heroic through adverse circumstances and personal determination. Keith is not prepossessing – shortish, rather fat, not at all ambitious; even his sister feels he needs to be told what to do – and when we meet him he is living contentedly, though in straitened circumstances, in Ealing, west London, with his wife, Katie. Katie works in a draper’s shop, and her income, combined with the rent of the top two floors of their house, and Keith’s writing, enables them to live sufficiently. Keith’s main interest is making engineering models, and he makes and writes about these in the magazine ‘Miniature Mechanic’, for which he is not paid a great deal.
Keith’s sister Joanna is quite a different sort of person: leaving Renfrew at an early age to become a Tiller Girl, Joanna met John Dermott, a naval officer, married him, and had a daughter, Janice. John and Joanna propose to leave England on their boat, sail across the Atlantic, through the Panama canal to various Pacific islands, and then head back east to Vancouver, Canada, where they hope to settle. In order to do this, they plan to have Janice stay with Keith and Katie (rather than with John’s rather raffish noble family, the Dungannons, in Ireland). Before they leave, John asks Keith’s advice about a strong box to contain Jo’s jewels, which they want to take with them, and Keith goes down to Hamble to embed the box in concrete on board the yacht.
It wouldn’t be spoiling the plot to reveal that the Dermotts are killed, since this event occurs in the second chapter – their boat is wrecked on an uninhabited island in the Tuamotos chain – and, unfortunately, Janice’s inheritance goes down with them. Keith decides that, in order to fully discharge his duties as trustee to Janice under John and Jo’s wills, he must journey to Marokota island to place a headstone on the Dermotts’ grave, and to recover “Jo’s jewels” for his niece.
Thereafter, Keith’s adventures begin. Though never having previously been out of Britain, he is able to travel to by aeroplane to Hawaii, partly arranged due to his work on Miniature Mechanic. From thence to Tahiti he travels on a yacht built and captained by the eccentric and bull-headed Jack Donelly. Donelly is something of a simple character, whom everyone else thinks stupid and rather crazy, though he is a natural sailor, justifying Keith’s faith in him. They reach Tahiti without incident, though it is once they have arrived that troubles start.
Keith’s quest is aided from the start by all sorts of likely connections, through his writing for the magazine, and the respect in which he is held by the readers and subscribers – it’s to Shute’s credit that none of these connections or coincidences feel forced or unrealistic. Keith’s good fortune is not solely due to luck – as he thinks – but it is mostly down to his previous hard, painstaking work and willingness to trust others: these aid him in his quest and reward him for his trouble.
This is rather a charming and uplifting book; the characters are interesting and varied, and sympathetically portrayed; and the far-flung and exotic locations are quietly drawn. Shute’s prose style is deliberate and unshowy: not at all quirky. This novel contains details of mechanical matters simply explained, and Shute as usual hymns the craft and skill of the engineer, and conveys his respect in the profession. It’s a straightforward story – Shute plays no tricks on the reader (though the denouement is satisfying and unexpected) – and by the end one feels heartened and warmed by Keith’s journey and its conclusion.