Richard Hughes – A High Wind in Jamaica (published 1929)
This book was the first title in the NYRB Classics series. I had read this many years ago and the only part I remembered was something about a very sad and touching relationship between a little girl and a pirate. I was curious to see how it would strike me on the second reading.
This book is remarkably odd and original, especially considering its date of publication. The opening chapter is like a fever dream… a ruined, falling-down sugar plantation in Jamaica, in the mid 1800’s, after the Emancipation has destroyed the reigning economic system with its basis in slavery. Nature is run amok. The birds and bats and swarming insects have reasserted their dominion over the place; the vegetation grows so rampant that it has smothered entire buildings. This disquieting setting is the home of a family of English children who are barely civilized; they behave like little savages while their preoccupied and clueless parents make half-hearted attempts to keep them in line by making them wear shoes. We are barely into the first chapter when a series of cataclysmic events takes place, in rapid succession. Without warning, God’s own paradise is transformed into a seething mess, “hell’s pandemonium”. And all of it is described beautifully, evocatively, and yet so matter-of-factly that for the moment we put aside the question of whether or not it’s plausible. This chapter sets the scene for the remainder of the story, most of which takes place on the high seas, after the parents decide that the children should return to England for their own safety. But of course they don’t accompany them. No, they put them on a merchant ship bound for England in the care of an incompetent captain and his drunken crew, who are somehow expected to take charge of the children during the voyage. This proves to be a very bad idea, when shortly thereafter, the ship is set upon by pirates. The narrator confidentially explains: “Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago; but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form.” The pirate vessel, having looted the merchant ship of all its valuable cargo, sets sail with the children accidentally still on board. The pirate captain would really love to get rid of them, but he can’t figure out how to accomplish it. It quickly becomes a question of who are the more savage—the children or the pirates?
The tone of irony and emotional detachment in recounting a tale of death, cruelty, and sexuality makes for a very interesting perch from which to view the action. We recoil at the corruption of innocence and the evil done on both sides. The author displays an impressively deep insight into the psychology of children’s minds, how they can be damaged and yet resilient; and also how they think so differently from adults. A brief excerpt from the book deserves quoting here: “Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child; and children are human…but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby; and babies of course are not human—they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes… Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes they are animals—why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.” This rings true for me; I have a clear memory of my own children when they were newborn, and they seemed far closer to slippery, mewling animals than they did to immature human beings.
I think this book must be an early example of that odd little subgenre: children left on their own. Other examples of which are “Our Mother’s House” and “The Cement Garden.” Many reviewers have also compared it to “Lord of the Flies”, but in that case the kids-as-amoral-savages theme is used as a prop; whereas in Hughes’ book the children have been tragically misunderstood and abandoned by the adults in their lives, and their behavior never feels allegorical; it feels nothing if not real. Because they feel real to us, they break our hearts, we want them to be happy, and we wish we could save them.