Stories about pirates and orphans were my childhood favorites. Pirates, orphans, and those ever-so-enviable children–Madeline and Eloise–who lucked out with distant, absent, or dead parents: Pippi Longstocking, Huckleberry Finn, and Peter Pan, were winners for featuring distant parents and pirates.
Never to be mistaken for a children’s book, A High Wind in Jamaica has absent parents and pirates too, although to be sure, Richard Hughes’s Emily Bas-Thorton is no Wendy Darling. (The cover art for the nyrb (1999) edition, Henry Darger’s “Storm Gathers,” is so perfectly right, it’s hard to believe his wide-eyed, pixie-blonde and creepy Vivian sisters weren’t a foregone conclusion.)
Hughes’s children, in the Eden of Jamaica, are free of societal constraints. They are nature’s children, which is to be free of sin. But to be free of sin does not render them angelic. They are cast out from their paradise, and shipped back to England (the very essence of civilization). Richard Hughes’s touch is so deceptively light, it’s possible to half-forget, or put aside, the dark and terrifying moments of the first chapter: the earthquake, the hurricane, and the pet cat torn to shreds. And when the children–en route to England–are kidnapped by bumbling pirates, Hughes’s sleight of hand makes it seem like a madcap adventure. Except it isn’t a madcap adventure, and fun and games are not fun and games at all. Each of the extraordinarily stark and brutal moments hit like a sucker-punch. I should’ve see it coming, but I didn’t. Children are not, by nature, sweet and good. That they, like grown-ups, are perfectly capable of betrayal, brutality, and evil, is nothing new in life, religion, and literature, but Hughes spares us the Lord of the Flies heavy-handed moralizing. He also spares us from the disappointment of so much as a remotely-happy ending. He offers no redemption. I will read A High Wind in Jamaica again and likely again after that, and not only because of the pirates, the distant parents, and the creepy children. I’ll read it again to study the prose, to try to figure out how the writer-as-magician sawed a woman in half without making a mess. (And I’m still puzzling over the point-of-view and the first-person narration.)