A High Wind In Jamaica

by JDP

This relentless-but-lighthearted chronicle of the various ills (both other-imposed and self-inflicted) that befall a group of children after they’ve been taken hostage on a pirate ship is a bizarrely insightful look into the inner moral workings of childhood innocence. Hughes’ thesis is, simply put, that children aren’t all that innocent.

Richard Hughes / British / 1929 / 279 pages

I seem to have recently stumbled into a raft of novels where children aren’t depicted in the most flattering of lights. Murakami led the charge with his character May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Here is a young teenage woman who, rather than attending high school, is content to smoke, spy, and speculate with the adult protagonist about a range of lurid hypotheticals. Then there was the ragtag bunch of aspiring tennis pros in DFW’s Infinite Jest who daily ingested a panoply of illicit substances before playing mock war games where their tennis balls approximated nuclear warheads decimating entire metropolises. Just last week I finished reading McEwan’s Atonement, where the young Briony Tallis famously mistakes a romantic encounter between her older sister and her sister’s lover as sexual assault and testifies against the man in a court of law (the result of which is his years-long incarceration).

Richard Hughes takes the indictment of supposed childhood innocence to an entirely new level, however, in A High Wind in Jamaica. His thesis is fairly simple: in addition to being physically and intellectually underdeveloped compared to adults, children are generally morally adrift as well and, without substantial oversight (or, actually, sometimes despite this oversight), they cannot be trusted to make morally defensible decisions on their own. They hurt one another, they hurt animals; they are systematically incapable of keeping promises and harbor no understanding of the consequences of actions; they forget traumatic experiences in the face of more immediately pleasant ones; they are fickle and their memories are untrustworthy; inconsistency, caprice, and ignorance govern their reality. At the same time that they can be manipulated, they are also eminently adaptable and shift shapes depending on the demands of their surroundings. Group dynamics within collections of children are especially problematic. Given to the whimsy of the mob mentality, they ostracize one another maliciously and without design.

This might all seem a little curmudgeonly, but Hughes was specifically working in this novel to draw into question the old Victorian idea that childhood is a idyllic Garden of Eden where innocence lies unspoiled by the harsh demands of the adult world. Hughes recognizes this potential, but rails against its automatic assumption. He places his group of children in a broad range of less-than-ideal environments of adult supervision. First, they are woefully unattended to by their absentminded parents in an English colony in Jamaica. Second, they basically run unchecked and without supervision around the decks of a pirate ship after they have been taken captive by these criminals of the high seas. Third, they are easily manipulated by a range of lawyers and judges in a court of law where they are asked to bear out false testimony against the pirates. Throughout the course of these events, one child will accidentally fall to his death, another will accidentally murder a gagged-and-bound seaman, and a third will be victimized by the pirate horde for want of collective protection by the other children. It is a dark tale.

But a huge component of the novel’s brilliance is the rather light air with which Hughes is able to treat these subjects. The book is seriously funny at many points and the horrors come off more as illustrative parables rather than visceral accounts intended to shock the reader out of his complacency. We don’t often think of children behaving in these capacities, but Hughes’ narrative arcs are all plausible: given the circumstances, the confusion, and these children’s inherently underdeveloped sense of right and wrong, it makes sense that they would behave in such capacities. Equally entertaining is Hughes’ repeated demonstration that moral adulthood (or at least, moral adulthood as demonstrated in the lives of the children’s parents, captors, and lawyers) is nothing much to aspire to. We’ve always known that the moral compass of many grown people points magnetic south; Hughes is simply comfortable adding to this list the orientations of children as well.

There are a number of highly effective narrative techniques at work in this novel. The atmospheres are consistently pleasant, but only superficially so. It always feels, each page anew, that we’re just a hair’s breadth away from some new calamity despite the lighthearted scene setting. To some extent, this is the point: things can go from good to bad (or from bad to worse) very quickly and it takes an individual of rather pronounced moral acuity to bridge the transition successfully. I am reminded in this respect of another island novel The Ten Thousand Things, that feasts on these weirdly murky and slightly cosmic environments. Hughes also relies occasionally on the kind of haphazard slapstick comedy we see in, for instance, Catch-22 or, perhaps, Under the Net. Hilarious misunderstandings that play out between adults and children often result in some truly ridiculous antics and at least a few of these end jovially rather than horribly. Taken in total, Hughes offers the reader enough to hang her hat on in terms of style, humor, and presentation that she can easily weather the darker storm that underlies the novel’s progression.

Critically speaking, this is one of the most highly regarded novels of the twentieth century, yet it’s one that I believe most people have never heard of. I can understand how at the time of its publication, it was a truly pioneering work and many reviewers have noted that it opened the doors for later (and more popular) works such as Lord of the Flies and Walkabout and The Butterfly Revolution. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone who was once a child; that is to say, everyone should check out this book!

Rating: 9 / 10

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