A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in JamaicaI said yesterday that Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica was the best book I had read about children in ages; I think, in fact, it may be the best book I have ever read about children. Its exploration of their psychology is certainly deep and affecting. It begins in Jamaica, where the five Bas-Thornton children are growing up on an old sugar plantation. The eldest two were born in England, and as newcomers to the island they are subtly but importantly differentiated from the Creoles—families European in origin but which have spent at least a generation in the Caribbean. Emily is the oldest girl, the undisputed queen of the children and a focal point of the novel. And an intriguing child, bossy about “the Liddlies” and fastidious about the smallest bits of morality. She and her older brother John are sent to pay a visit to the Fernandez family, nearby Creoles, who are not quite up to her standards.

Emily said nothing. Of course people smelt different: it didn’t need arguing. She could always tell her own towel from John’s, for instance: or even knew if one of the others had used it. But it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way.

But with the Creoles Emily has her first amazing experience: an earthquake. It is a minor tremor, but she feels herself transformed; she has now had an Adventure. An Earthquake. Hughes really understands the magic of words, here. A hurricane comes and blows the Thorntons’ house right down, but since it’s only called a “storm” she is totally unfazed. Her parents, on the other hand, are finally driven to send the children back to England to school. They pack them off with nice Captain Marpole, who Mrs. Bas-Thornton knows “will worship” the children—but lo, the five, along with the Fernandez boy and girl, are soon kidnapped by pirates.

But the children—most of them, at least—have no idea they have been kidnapped, do not acknowledge they are with a ship full of criminals, and completely block out the memory of elder brother John after his accidental death. Their life on the ship is like Lord of the Flies, only with benevolent if bumbling adults hanging around, and a mix of girls and boys. And Queen Emily still very much in charge of things.

Hughes has an amazing sense of the resilience and resourcefulness of the children, and of their weird, secretive inner lives. The siblings are, of course, all different ages, and each has a very distinct and lovingly drawn personality.

Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): 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: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.

In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human—but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, every one 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.

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree—and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?

“One of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates” indeed—my dearest love and companion in this vale of tears has been known to refer to them as larvae, and I feel another companion in Richard Hughes. I am just in love with this passage, in every respect. Children are mad, in “human” terms; the adults in the novel certainly cannot understand their motivations or inner lives, or really anything about them or their adventure at all.

Of course, there is, as in Lord of the Flies, a darker side to children, as there is a dark side to nature and to human nature. Emily might be scandalized to think of addressing an adult by her first name, but murder is not beyond her—nor is letting her pirate friends hang for it. The disturbing last section of the book, after the children are deposited safely on a steamer headed for England, is, unfortunately, inevitable. And of course very well done. I am going to have to search out more of this Hughes fellow, even if it does mean reading novels about the rise of Hitler (not a super appealing subject for me).

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