Written in 1929, A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes tracks the voyage of seven children from Jamaica to England. En route, they are captured by pirates. However, this is not Peter Pan. Nobody’s innocent.
The novel begins in Jamaica on a decayed sugarcane plantation, post-emancipation. Nature is fighting back. The plantation structures are falling apart and so are morals. Elderly plantation owners are neglected by former slaves. The heat is oppressive, the sun is a “sodden purple.” The five children of the Bas-Thornton family entertain themselves by tormenting insects and small animals. The abiding image is the chase to the death given to the Bas-Thornton’s cat by a group of feral cats.
After a hurricane literally tears off the roof, the five Bas-Thornton children are sent by their parents to England. They are joined by the two Fernandez children, Harry and Margaret. In one of the most unheroic capture scenes ever written, the seven children are taken aboard a pirate ship. Other than Margaret, the oldest, they all display symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Hughes focuses on the reactions of ten-year old Emily Bas-Thornton. Emily is caught between childhood and adulthood, without the protection of the former and the understanding of the latter and devoid of an instinctive sense of morality or loyalty. There are overtones of sexual predation and repression. Written with a mordant wit, A High Wind in Jamaica is highly amusing even as it describes a host of unfortunate events. British propriety and stiff-upper lips meet mischance in a comic collision. Beneath the dark humor, it’s a cat-eat-cat world. Hughes’ observations and language are priceless. Someone who writes sentences like, “But it was not her, it was the meal that raped Jose’s attention,” deserves to be read. A High Wind In Jamaica deserves a second chance, and, in fact, it was given one when the Modern Library named it as one of the 100 best novels. A High Wind in Jamaica will blow you away.