A High Wind In Jamaica, by Richard Hughes
This book is marketed as a story with no sympathetic point of view, but it’s not hard to see the complexity that is involved in the author’s perspective when it comes to the fate of a group of children who, on their way to boarding school in England, are kidnapped by pirates. The book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, but I would agree with those who say that this is a more complex book because it lacks the obvious and heavy-handed moral approach of that work and serves instead as a reminder of the essential unreliability of perspective and the difficulty people have of understanding the truth, especially when that truth is experienced by children unable to fully understand what they are about and what is going on. Indeed, a great deal of the enjoyment and worth of reading this book is the way that the author explores the mind of children from a point of view that, if not necessarily very sympathetic, is cynically intriguing in nature. Personally speaking, I would find a bit of fault with the author’s conclusions at the end of this novel, which ends rather shockingly and abruptly, but all the same it was a compelling read that is worth exploring for those who like literary fiction involving children in peril.
This book is a novel about the repercussions of decisions made by people that they do not fully understand that have far wider consequences than they can realize. We begin in Jamaica, where a generally well-off family of English plantation owners has decided to send their adorable brats on a ship to England for boarding school. The captain promises to take care of them, a promise that is immediately broken when the ship is waylaid by Cuban pirates, and one of the children dies in the course of the takeover. The captain himself writes that the kids are dead, leaving the distraught parents to move back, broken, to England. Of course, most of the kids still live but find themselves as hostages of a sort on a pirate ship where the threat of rape and exploitation is constant. The attempts of the captain to extricate himself from the threat of being hung only lead him into disaster when word of his actions spreads to the Royal Navy and he is brought to justice, of a sort, only to reach an ending where the pirates hang for a murder that they did not commit.
It is this ending that provides a great deal of the force of the novel in its exploration of the imperfection of human justice, but the ending is strangely unsatisfying in a way if brilliant in other ways. For example, the author seems to think that it would be impossible to tell the traumatized Emily from her fellow classmates in the course of a few months, but considering the traumas that Emily went through via an attempted rape as well as having been the accidental murderer of a captured Dutch captain, it is unlikely that she will be able to fully overcome that sort of horror in a short time, and perhaps not at all. The author’s understanding of the effects of trauma on children is sadly defective. Even so, the chilling courtroom scene as the defense attorney sinks the case of his clients by bringing up something particularly traumatic to the witness is a stark reminder, if any reminder is necessary, of the importance for an attorney to never ask a question one does not already know the answer to, because the results could be unpredictable and that is the last thing one wants to deal with in a courtroom.