When a hurricane levels their home in Jamaica, the Thorntons decide that the best thing to do is to put their five children on a ship to England. have Joining them are the two Fernandez children, both of them creoles and “a wildish lot.” The ship, the Clorinda, hasn’t even left the Caribbean when it is overtaken by pirates who bring the children on board. They … adapt.
This 1929 novel by Richard Hughes is both dark and hilarious. I don’t know what it says about me that I found a novel where the cat, a monkey, and one of the kids dies so funny, but I did. I think it’s the subversion of expectations regarding both childhood innocence and fragility.
The children are quick to adjust to their new life among the pirates, not even really understanding at first that they are with pirates and not much caring when they figure it out. The only two who seem to understand their situation are Margaret, the eldest Fernandez, and Emily, the Thornton daughter (second to John in age). And they each make the best of it in different ways, with very different results in the end.
Among the children, Emily gets the most attention in the narrative, and we see her going through a process of seeing herself as an individual, as Emily, and choosing where her loyalties are. Her journey, as well as Margaret’s, goes to some dark places. This is not a rollicking kids’ adventure. There is blood and death.
What’s startling is that the events that you’d think might have the most effect are not the ones that haunt the kids. Emily doesn’t care much, for example, about the hurricane that demolished her home, but she thrills at the memory of an earthquake. One of the deaths along the journey that should have scarred her doesn’t even warrant mentioning later. But she still frets over what happened to her cat Tabby in the hurricane. The conclusion shows that Emily’s mind is still very much her own, incomprehensible to most adults. She might do what they say, up to a point, but she is her own self. The best the adults can do is manage the world she and the other children are in to get the results they want.