Monday, April 24, 2017

A High Wind in Jamaica

Welsh writer Richard Hughes published A High Wind in Jamaica in 1929 (sometimes published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage), and the playwright’s novel would go on to be turned into a Broadway production by dramatist Paul Osborn in 1943.  The novel was also adapted for a 1965 movie of the same title that starred Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, and was performed as a radio play on two occasions (once in 1950 and then again in 2000).  To say the least, the novel has had a good run.

Despite all of that, I was unfamiliar with the novel and its author until I heard Ann Patchett praise it at the San Antonio book festival a couple of weeks ago in a conversation she had there with author Elizabeth McCracken.  It is Patchett’s theory that A High Wind in Jamaica has served as the blueprint for countless novels about children who are totally oblivious to the dangerous circumstances they may suddenly find themselves in.  She admits to more than once having used the pattern herself, including in her current novel, Commonwealth (a novel that turns out to be much more autobiographical than I would have imagined before hearing the author speak about it).

Anthony Quinn, James Coburn in the 1965 movie version
A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of children being sent to England from Jamaica by their parents so that they can attend boarding schools in the mother country.  The children, all of them roughly between the ages of three and ten years old, are sent on their own – the youngest children being in the complete care of their older brothers and sisters.  Unfortunately, the rather lazy and negligent captain of the vessel on which they leave for England, allows his boat to be boarded and taken by a small group of the most incompetent “pirates” in the history of piracy.  The cowardly captain, in fact, makes a run for his own freedom, abandoning the children to the pirates who had temporarily moved the kids to their own little boat.  Now, the Danish pirate captain and his crew are stuck with a bunch of kids they have no idea what to do with – try as they might to figure it all out.

To the kids, who never realize that their very lives are in jeopardy, it is all one big adventure and soon enough they are climbing ropes and getting into trouble at a pace that astounds even the roughest of the pirate crew.  The captain knows that he has to get rid of the children one way or the other if he is going to be able to avoid capture and prison – or worse – but no one wants to take them off his hands.

Richard Hughes
Richard Hughes tries to take the reader inside the minds of the children and what they see from their distinctive points-of-view, his theory being that the minds of children do not work anything remotely like the minds of adults work.  This is a point that none of the adults in the story ever seem to figure out – and the repercussions stemming from this oversight are both comic and tragic.  In the end, the children who live through the prolonged “kidnapping” may be the least affected by what happened to them on the high seas around Cuba. 

Bottom Line: A High Wind in Jamaica is clever piece of satire that manages to be both a comedy and a tragedy.  It is easy to see why the short novel (191 pages) has been popular for so long, and if Ann Patchett’s theory is correct, why it will remain a studied piece of writing for decades to come.  Despite its sometimes-tedious writing style, this one makes for an interesting read.

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