In Richard Hughes’s amazing novel A High Wind in Jamaica, six English children from two different families are growing up in the lush wet heat of Jamaica. Despite the fact that they are quite young (ranging in age from twelve to three), they are more or less independent of their parents, ranging wherever they want to go and encountering danger with the intrepidity (or indifference) of ignorance. But after a terrible hurricane (the eponymous high wind in Jamaica) levels their home, their parents decide the children must go back to England, where they will be safe.
This, of course, is where the high adventure begins. Not a week out of port, the merchantman to which the children have been entrusted falls into the hands of pirates, and the children are captured. These are neither vicious pirates, à la Blackbeard, nor campy pirates of the Caribbean, but rather down-at-heel German pirates (I know!) who have no earthly idea what to make of the horde of children that has invaded the barque. The story that follows, of how the children sail with pirates and find their way home, is one of bizarre humor, secrets and lies, unexpected violence, seduction and innocence, and is frankly one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read.
The plot summary I’ve just given you sounds as if it could be a wonderful children’s novel, full of rollicking good times. It’s not — not any more than Lord of the Flies or Huckleberry Finn are children’s novels just because their protagonists are children. This novel is a carefully-crafted presentation of the idea that children are quite different from adults, and think differently, in a way that we might call insane if an adult thought this way.
Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human…; but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider that ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree…
The children create their own reality, which is sensual, primal, separate from adult “civilized” notions because ignorant of them, and utterly resilient. We see most of the book’s action through Emily’s eyes, the oldest daughter of one of the families. To her, adult relationships, or relationships between adults and children, are confusing, uncomfortable, bewildering, ecstatic, luminous fascinating, responsible for weird alliances and even weirder behavior. She survives an earthquake, a hurricane, the casually brutal death of one of their number, capture by pirates, and oddly lurid, feverish experiences like sleeping with an alligator — and yet at the end, her memories of what happened blend with, and are mostly replaced by, what adults expect her to have experienced. Everyone lies. Almost everyone keeps secrets to a pathological degree. Only the children are expert at it.
In the end, Hughes has created a wicked spin on Rousseau’s Romantic idea of the child-innocent. Yes, he says, children are closer to nature than adults are. And do you know what nature is really like? In a sly aside, he compares lawyers and the novelist’s trade:
After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts. He is concerned with probabilities. It is the novelist who is concerned with facts, whose job it is to say what a particular man did do on a particular occasion: the lawyer does not, cannot be expected to go further than to show what the ordinary man would be most likely to do under presumed circumstances.
Hughes shows us the facts, and whether we like them or not, we feel them as true. This book is as fascinating, as dangerously delicious, as a tropical fruit you’ve never seen before. Taste it at your own peril.