Nature as Protagonist

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica was written in 1928 when our expectation of language was different. Hemingway had just entered America’s literary consciousness – his narratives detailing fractured lives and messy relationships had not yet amassed mythical lore. Hughes’ rich, gorgeous prose seduces us before we realize the sinister undertones rippling through the lines…

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Hughes treats natural phenomena as a character – it functions as an extension of the interior life of the novel’s ten-year old protagonist, Emily Bas-Thornton. Human nature and nature collude and drive the narrative forward. Hughes ability to integrate the unpredictability of the natural world with the events surrounding the bizarre kidnapping of children by pirates – and specifically with the consciousness of his main character Emily – creates a profoundly disturbing and visceral account. 
The novel opens in Jamaica in 1860. We see a landscape in decline – a tropical paradise devastated by sugar barons and emancipation, “…ruined slave quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, often ruined mansions that were too expensive to maintain. Earthquake, fire, rain, and deadlier vegetation, did their work quickly”. The “ruination” of the land acts as a precursor to the psychological ruin that will visit the children later on as captives on board a pirate ship.

After a catastrophic hurricane, the Bas-Thornton children are spirited off to England – their parents having determined that Jamaica is no longer a safe habitat. Pirates intercept the ship – looking for booty but settling for the children and commandeering them on to their pirate vessel. Captain Jonsen and first mate Otto cling to the romantic ideal of being Pirates even though they are far less dangerous than they try to appear – certainly they turn out to be less mercenary than 10-year old Emily. The pirate’s strange relationship with the children evolves over time and provides the basis for an immoral sexual context. The insinuation alone is chilling though Hughes never actually depicts immoral sexual acts – they are alluded to and that is enough. It is that state of constantly preparing for dire consequences that jerks us along – Hughes seduces us into an anticipatory state.

Close up jacket image: Henry Darger

Close up jacket image: Henry Darger

By then, Hughes has already painted an unsettling portrait of Emily. Long before the children are banished from Jamaica, we see her and her brother John delight in setting tree springes to catch birds and then, “deciding…whether to twist its neck or let it go free – thus the excitement and suspense, both for child and bird, can be prolonged beyond the moment of capture”. Hughes’ macabre humor is sprinkled throughout and its peculiar mix evokes in the reader a sense of dread and wonder – but always serves to remind us that nature exists intertwined with human frailty.

As Emily and her siblings grow accustomed to living on the ship, she is at once a victim of circumstance and an avid participant in an evil act. In the same way all the passengers’ lives are at the mercy of a malleable sea and sky, we understand that Emily is as unpredictable as the weather; she thinks nothing of torturing small animals found in her island home, “She had a passion for catching house-lizards without their tails dropping off, which they do when frightened… Her room was full of these and other pet, some alive, others probably dead”. The predatory and unforgiving charge of a hurricane – which literally destroys the Island and the children’s home – is juxtaposed with the menacing acts Emily visits on helpless creatures.

During the book’s climax, Emily murders a Dutch captain whose own vessel has been seized by the same pirates that captured her. While Jonsen and Otto rifle through the captured vessel’s cargo, the Dutch captain is bound and tossed in Jonsen’s stuffy cabin along with Emily. As she and the Dutch captain eye each other, Emily witnesses abject fear for the first time. When the Dutchman attempts to escape, she responds by slashing him “in a dozen places”. It is unexpected and savage but an act from which she recovers quickly. Several days later she muses about her part in the murder of a man, “As a Piece of nature she was practically invulnerable, but as Emily she was absolutely naked, tender…Quite apart from these attacks of blind, secret panic she had other times of a very ordinary, rational anxiety…But presently she was singing happily again and hanging right out of the bunk to outline in pencil the brown stain on the floor”. The brown stain is what remains of the Dutchman’s blood and like a crater left by a meteor – its significance diminishes as time passes and the violence of the action fades. In the same way, Emily disavows any culpability for the death she caused and easily segues back into Victorian life once off the ship.

Once the children are rescued and an investigation is underway, Emily’s father – in a chillingly gothic scene – watches Emily as she plays in her room one night. We can sense his growing despair and see menacing shadows flick eerily on the walls, “He was like a powerless stalled audience, which pities unbearably, but would not on any account have missed the play…But as he stood watching her, his sensitive eyes communicated to him an emotion which was not pity and was not delight: he realized, with a sudden painful shock that he was afraid of her!” Hughes could leave us there and we would still be distraught by the father’s apprehension but he adds one last point, “But surely it was some trick of the candle-light or of her indisposition, that gave her face momentarily that inhuman, stony, basilisk look.” Hughes forces us to see the correlation between civilization and savagery and consider how they are not mutually exclusive. More pointedly, Emily is transformed into a legendary mythical creature – symbolic of irrational fear. She no longer exists as an innocent Victorian child, but as a sly and sinister procurer of evil acts – a part of the natural world that cannot be compelled or tamed.

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The jacket illustration entitled, Storm Gathers, is by Henry Darger – the original “outsider’s” artist. An intriguing and troubled author in his own right, his immense creative output encompasses thousands of illustrations of children – many naked and many more who endure torture, murder and various fiendish encounters. It’s the perfect jacket image for Hughes’ book.

— Deborah Johnstone

— Hughes, Richard. A High Wind in Jamaica. New York: NYRB Classics; First Edition1999. Print.

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