Apr 29, 2017

Glenn's Book Blows!

Review and Analysis of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Lunch and Acknowledgments

Question: what do you get when you pair a strangely-conceived children-abducted-by-pirates story written in 1929 with a gorgeous afternoon in Sonoma County?


1.  A contrite host;
2.  A delicious Caribbean-style lunch;
3.  A very spirited conversation;
4.  An appreciation for why no one this side of the pond reads Richard Hughes, an Englishman who lived in a castle; or
5.  All of the above.

Yes, over jerked chicken, spiced slaw, beans and rice, and a mouth-watering rum cake, we checked Answer No. 5 at Glenn's last Sunday.

Since we revel in the accomplishments of our children, we were all proud to hear that John's daughter Ali made the U.S. Women's Senior National Team this month.  Were it an Olympic year, we would be watching Ali striving for gold.  Way to go, Ali!

Our Review and Discussion of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

A High Wind in Jamaica attempts to tell two stories:  one a swashbuckling pirate adventure and the other a story of children coming of age on the high seas.  It starts with a hurricane in Jamaica whose destruction is so vast that Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton are compelled to send their children home to England while they rebuild.  During the voyage home, the children's ship is overtaken by pirates.  The children are kidnapped by the pirates but by the end of the novel the captor-captive relationship reverses, and when the pirates are captured they find themselves entirely at the mercy of 11-year old Emily Bas-Thornton.   Her courtroom testimony--motivated by a preternatural sense of self-preservation--leads to their execution.

Our discussion began and ended with apologies from Glenn.  For, no matter how promising its premise, HWJ disappointed on every count.  There was too little made of the pirates and too much of the children, according to Tom.  It was, as Dean described, a "very crappy pirate story."  As a children's story, it was even crappier...and mildly disturbing.  Paul characterized it as a nasty version of Peter Pan.  Jack was more charitable and assumed Hughes was writing for a Young Adult market--so presumably the novel's psycho-sexual undertones would avoid scrutiny.  Wherever HWJ fit in the broad category of children's lit, our guest Mark was as underwhelmed as the rest of us.   According to him, memorable children's fiction is invariably anchored by the extraordinary but, with no giant peach or chocolate river to fill its sails, HWJ was just another fantasy cast adrift.

(Ed. Note:  If you're counting, that was three nautical puns in one sentence.)

Rating A High Wind in Jamaica

Not only was HWJ a clumsy attempt at pirate/kid fiction, it was also implausible (Roy), strange (Armando), and Disneyesque (Terry).  With little to justify the hours we invested in it, it's no surprise we gave it our worst rating (5.3) in four years. We're inclined to forgive Daniel Handler for his effusiveness (since we raised our children on his Lemony Snicket books).  But it's astonishing that the Modern Library included HWJ as No. 71 on its list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Next Up: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Terry proposed an eclectic set of titles for May:  the civil rights story behind the Groveland murders, Chouinard's entrepreneur-cum-environmentalist business book, a mass market spy thriller by Stuart Kaminsky, and JD Vance's memoir about growing up in Appalachia.  We chose Vance in the hope that his story will help us better understand the angst of the white working class. 


  1. I had high hopes for High Wind given the buildup to this book, but counted myself among the moderately disappointed. The beginning was intriguing enough -- children's view of their world as an interesting alternative, a big storm, and then off to be captured by pirates. But at that point the children seemed unbelievable, the pirates bizarre, and the plot muddy. I thought there were some humorous lines that derived from this book's origin on the other side of the pond: "To scream, to struggle, attempt flight -- they would be absolutely useless and -- well, a breach of decorum." Of course, we got one that feels like it's from this side -- "After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts.".

    While it's been a while since I read the book, which might limit my ability to comment, it's also telling that I just don't remember much fondly from this one.

  2. Your quotes remind me that HWJ is filled with various philosophical observations and digressions, loosely in the form of commentary about the children or their captors. But these reflections added yet another layer of fuzziness to a grown-up's narrative about pirates or kids or something more profound (i.e., was this all an allegory for something more interesting that we didn't have the depth to figure out?). Maybe HWJ has to be read in conjunction with other fantasy/adventure literature of the period to be fully appreciated. Which only goes to show that Heart of Darknes--our prior read at Glenn's--stands the test of time so much better than HWJ.

  3. Garbage in, garbage out. The book is trite, filled with ominous undertones, and not worth reading. The book reeks of pedophilia. The only real surprise was that a book written so long ago as a children's novel would have the undercurrent of the homo erotic relationship the first mate desired with the captain.