Sunday, May 23, 2010


A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes, Harper and Brothers, 1929, 279 pp

 Today is Sunday, the day I like to post a review of what we call a "family read" at Once Upon A Time. I am not convinced that this book qualifies, but you decide.

  I had never heard of this book until one of my reading groups picked it. Even more surprising, I found it shelved as Young Adult in the library. I don't know. Seems to me there are mostly adult concepts here but since the story is about children ages 3 to 11, I guess that makes it Young Adult?

 The reading group members' opinions ranged from "hated it" to ho hum, except for me. I found it a great read, totally entertaining and full of interesting questions about child rearing and the uses of children in the legal system.

  An English family lives in a decayed plantation house in late 19th century Jamaica, post emancipation. Their five children are fed, put to bed at night after being read to, but otherwise are left to roam about having adventures in the great outdoors.

     "It was a kind of paradise for English children to come to, whatever it might be for their parents: especially at that time, when no one lived in at all a wild way at home. Here one had to be a little ahead of the times or decadent, whichever you like to call it. The difference between boys and girls, for instance, had to be left to look after itself. Long hair would have made the evening search for grass-ticks and nits interminable. Emily and Rachel had their hair cut short and were allowed to do everything the boys did--to climb trees, swim and trap animals and birds; they even had two pockets in their frocks."

  Feral children then, who also read books. Cool; reminded me of my hippie days when the kids ran wild. But then, after a ferocious hurricane nearly levels their house, the parents suddenly decide that their children need a proper education. They put them all on a ship bound for England, entrusting these children to the care of the ship's captain. Now we are really far removed from the present day where children (at least the ones above the poverty line) are guarded from kidnappers and worse.

  Well, the ship is boarded by pirates before it has even left the Caribbean Sea, the children taken on to the pirate ship and then their adventures truly begin. From horrific to heartwarming, from dangerous to delightful and everything in between, they learn to climb the rigging, sleep in a hold, tame the ship's monkey and relate to the pirates.

  The journey to England on the pirate ship takes up most of the book. That is enough of a spoiler right there because, while reading, you wonder if they will make it. Not one child escapes being marked by the experience, some more deeply than others. My dad used to tell me that a person could get used to anything, which I did not believe as a child, but truly children can adapt to their circumstances, make do and figure out how to survive in about the same proportion as adults.

  In the end, I found the story frightful on top of entertaining and interesting; as if Patricia Highsmith got to rewrite Harry Potter. I am still not sure I would classify it as Young Adult, though it is some of the best writing about the minds of children I have ever come across.

(A High Wind in Jamaica is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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