71. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: SPOILERS!! A group of children traumatize a ship full of pirates almost as much as the pirates traumatize them.

Year Published: 1929
Pages: 284
First Sentence: One of the fruits of Emancipation in the West Indian islands is the number of the ruins, either attached to the houses that remain or within a stone's throw of them: ruined slaves' quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses; often ruined mansions that were too expensive to maintain.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

What with coming so close on the heels of A House for Mr Biswas, I didn't have high hopes for A High Wind in Jamaica. Based on the title and what I've come to expect from The List, I figured that this book would be Wide Sargasso Sea narrated by some whiny dude.

Boy, was I ever wrong. This book is awesome.

In order to summarize it I have to spoil one pretty amazing gag in the book, so if you want to go in fresh then stop reading this right now and go read this book instead. The rest of us will proceed with the review.

The book begins with an introduction to the Bas-Thornton children, Emily (the semi-main character, 10 years old or so), John (slightly older), Edward, Rachel, and Laura (each, respectively, younger than the last, and all younger than John and Emily—Laura is 4). They are English children living with their parents in Jamaica somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. After establishing the setting, Hughes abruptly knocks it all down with a hurricane, and Mr and Mrs Bas-Thornton decide to send their children back to England where they'll be safer.

Their voyage, on a sailing ship, has barely begun when the ship is boarded by pirates who kidnap the children so that the other crew will cooperate. Thanks to a healthy misunderstanding, the captain of the non-pirate ship believes that the pirates killed the children. Blah blah blah the kids end up on a pirate ship, ok? There are antics.

The genius of this book is that it is both very dark and very funny. The style is something along the lines of J. M. Barrie with all of the fantasy stripped away. The humour is mainly in the very astute details of the children's behaviour, while the darkness lurks on the edges of things. The story of Margaret, a girl somewhat older than John, who, along with her brother, is travelling with the Bas-Thorntons, is the most horrific of all, for reasons that you can probably guess.

Hughes juggles the seven children as characters pretty well, although they function best as an ensemble. He does an excellent job conveying the heat of the setting, too. I could praise him considerably more, but instead I'll just say that I'd be more than happy to read something (anything!) else he's written (a la Wallace Stegner, who I unfortunately still haven't managed to read more of yet).  Definitely take a bit of time to check this one out.

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For, only a few yards up, there was a Frangipani tree: a mass of brilliant blossom and no leaves, which was almost hidden in a cloud of humming-birds so vivid as much to outshine the flowers. Writers have often lost their way trying to explain how brilliant a jewel the humming-bird is: it cannot be done.
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If it would have surprised the mother, it would undoubtedly have surprised the children also to be told how little their parents meant to them. Children seldom have any power of quantitative self-analysis: whatever the facts, they believe as an article of faith that they love Father and Mother first and equally. Actually, the Thornton children had loved Tabby first and foremost in all the world, some of each other second, and hardly noticed their mother's existence more than once a week. Their father they loved a little more: partly owing to the ceremony of riding home on his stirrups.
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