Thursday, 4 January 2001

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

Edition: Harvill, 1998
Review number: 704

Following a fairly idyllic childhood in 1860s Jamaica, a group of children are sent to England to go to school. Their ship is waylaid by pirates, and they are captured. They spend some months on the ship - their parents having been told that the pirates have killed them - before their captors, unable to think what to do with them, put them aboard a legitimate passenger ship.

The plot of A High Wind in Jamaica is not particularly important. It is a novel about what it is like to be a child, and it is perhaps the best evocation of that world that has ever been written. It is a world with dark corners; the oldest of the children, a teenage girl, is molested by one of the pirates, another girl kills a man, and one of the boys is accidentally killed. However, most of the life of the children is taken up with enjoying new experiences and inventing all kinds of games and stories - the boys imagining themselves as pirates, for example. The resilience of childhood is one of the novel's most important themes.

From a literary point of view, the significance of A High Wind in Jamaica is that it is one of the earliest novels to treat of children in a naturalistic way. Children in earlier novels tend to be saints or little adults, or to have unlikely idyllic childhoods. Mark Twain is of course an important precursor, but Tom Sawyer is a bit older and his child characters are more mischievous than rounded; it is more to writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett that Hughes should be compared for contrast. Lord of the Flies is the novel which comes to mind most readily when reading A High Wind in Jamaica; Golding's children are more savage, which is partly because they are again older and partly because they are more completely outside the adult world.

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