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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

A forgotten classic, maybe? - A High Wind in Jamaica

One of those apparently great books that most have heard of but few (these days) have read - Richard Hughes's A Fair Wind in Jamaica, from about 1930 - I know almost nothing of Hughes and believe he write few if any other novels, which partially accounts for the obscurity of his one potentially great book. Anyway, read the first chapter last night (book is about 200 pages with 9 or 10 chapters), and can see immediately that it's not the kind of novel written or published at least any longer: very little actually happens in the first chapter, but he creates a scene and setting with what I can only call poetic details. Obviously this takes place in Jamaica early in the 20th century; the characters are British expats, some families newly arrived, others there for a few generations; Hughes begins by describing the ruined sugar mills, rum distilleries, and estates completely neglected, overgrown with vines, one estate in particular taken over by a few of the liberated slaves (slavery ended in about 1860, spelling the end of the sugar industry that was entirely dependent on slave labor). Gradually, we focus on one family, the Bas-Thorntons (oh those British names) and their children, raised almost as wild children, spending their days playing outdoors, swimming, often nude. The young girl in the family - 10 years old - goes wandering off following a stream for about 3 miles (!) and she comes upon a deeply impoverished village inhabited by a few descendents of freed slaves - they see her as an odd curiosity, some of the children had never seen a white person. Some of the descriptive passages are striking and original; Hughes creates a Southern Gothic mood that makes Faulkner's South seem like Puritan New England by comparison. No idea where he'll go with this set-up, but worth following that stream at least for a while.

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