Friday, July 17, 2009

A High Wind In Jamaica

by Richard Hughes

Five English children, born in Jamaica, are sent by ship to England when their house is leveled by a storm.  On the voyage, their ship is attacked by less than bloodthirsty pirates.  Reported dead by the lying ship’s captain, the children actually become sort of pets among the not very active pirates.  Though horrible things happen – the eldest boy dies in a fall, a female cousin of thirteen is apparently taken as a mistress by the mate, and Emily, the ten year old main character, kills a prisoner in blind panic – the prose is mostly dreamlike, dark and yet almost screwball in its comedy (the pirate captain is an ineffectual figure, full of rage and bluster).

Hughes makes much of the difference between children’s minds and the adult mind, likening babies to insects and children to insane humans.  It’s far less a ripping yarn than an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood.  Hughes is quite perspicacious in his depiction of the way the children accept changes on faith, don't think too deeply about some matters, accept the word of authority figures even if it belies their won experiences, and fall into affection easily.  But in other things he’s possibly off the mark; for example he has the children utterly unaware of danger, either during the storm or being shot at or being put in the hold – a total blitheness that’s certainly not likely.  It’s a book that swerves from philosophical rumination to adventure to silliness to danger to its chilling finale.   The book leaves the reader with some unanswered implications – is Emily just a regular child with a regular child’s amorality, or did she become corrupt, and can she become an innocent again? – and that makes it a better read.