Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
is a 2010 novel by English author Helen Simonson. Set in a small town in the English country called Edgecombe St. Mary, it follows the titular protagonist, the retired Major Ernest Pettigrew, whose peaceful life is disrupted when his brother dies. He befriends a Pakistani shopkeeper in town, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, and soon becomes entangled in several marriage plots while also trying to negotiate the terms of his brother’s will. The novel touches on the intersections between national identity, race, racism, culture, and institutions of marriage.
The novel begins the same morning that Pettigrew’s brother passes away. Pettigrew has also recently lost his wife, and now approaches 70. He is visited, unexpectedly, by Mrs. Ali, someone whom he has only ever seen in her shop. She makes him some tea and comforts him, then offers to drive him to his brother’s funeral. Pettigrew’s son, Roger, is late to the funeral, to his father’s annoyance. The funeral guests become fixated on the question of who will inherit Pettigrew’s father’s expensive and historic gun. It is one of a pair, of which the other was given to Pettigrew. Pettigrew wants to restore both guns and keep them, but Roger wants to sell them for some quick cash.
Pettigrew finds that his brother failed to include a clause about his gun in his will. As a result, its ownership is transferred to his widow. Pettigrew offers to show the guns to a rich American on her behalf, but actually intends to keep it for himself. As his plot unfolds, the vicar’s wife, Daisy, coerces Pettigrew into planning a community dance in Edgecombe St. Mary, themed “An Evening at the Mughal Court.” Pettigrew agrees, and invites Mrs. Ali to contribute her knowledge to ensure that it is not offensive to her culture (eventually realizing that Indian and Pakistani cultures are distinct). Mrs. Ali, in turn, invites a friend whose niece, Amina, has fathered a son with Abdul Wahid, Mrs. Ali’s nephew. Pettigrew is therefore pressured into ensuring that the two marry. He lets Abdul Wahid live with him when he refuses to stay with Amina, since she is unmarried. Roger gets angry at his father for housing a Muslim.
Meanwhile, Roger has a deteriorating relationship with his American girlfriend, Sandy. Sandy concludes that Roger only cares about himself and his status, and dumps him on Christmas Eve before returning to America. The community dance begins, and is a racist pastiche of Indian culture; even the Pakistani members of the community pretend to be Indian. Mrs. Ali’s friend brings her father, who lambasts the party planners for mocking his country. Pettigrew fails to defend Mrs. Ali when she is the subject of Daisy’s racist remark. Mrs. Ali offers her store as a dowry to her husband’s family in support of a potential marriage between Amina and Abdul Wahid. She departs to move into her in-laws’ house, leaving Edgecombe St. Mary. Her departure upsets Pettigrew, who has fallen in love with her. He is comforted by Mrs. Ali’s friend Grace, and eventually proposes to her instead. She rejects him on the basis that their relationship is passionless.
Grace helps Pettigrew find Mrs. Ali’s new address. When he visits her, she tells him that she has been sending him many letters, and realizes that they have been intercepted by her controlling brother-in-law. Pettigrew whisks her away to a wooded cabin, where they have sex. They travel to Edgecombe St. Mary to witness Amina and Abdul Wahid’s wedding. At the wedding, one of Abdul Wahid’s elderly relatives stabs Amina with her knitting needle. Abdul Wahid goes with the elderly woman to the cliffs by the sea, where he intends to commit suicide by jumping off. Mrs. Ali and Pettigrew run after them; Pettigrew takes one of his father’s heirloom guns. They get there just in time. Pettigrew knocks out the old woman with the butt of his gun, then approaches the edge to convince Abdul Wahid not to kill himself. He manages to position himself between Abdul Wahid and the edge of the cliff. In a last-ditch effort to stop his plan, he gives Abdul Wahid the gun and delivers the ultimatum: "Either shoot me or choose to live yourself.”
Abdul Wahid is unable to make either choice and drops the gun. When it lands, it fires a round into Pettigrew. He staggers over the edge of the cliff. Abdul Wahid rushes to his aid and saves his life. Pettigrew is taken to the hospital. While there, Abdul Wahid and Amina consult each other and mutually end up deciding not to marry. Amina has no desire to spend the rest of her life working in a convenience store and hopes to become a professional dancer. She agrees to remain near Edgecombe St. Mary so that Abdul Wahid can continue seeing and supporting their son. At the end of the novel, Pettigrew completely recovers. He finally proposes to Mrs. Ali, and they marry. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
suggests that empathy and compassion can overcome the moral epidemics of racism and greed that have plagued England, and that families can survive and nurture children despite romantic tensions.