10 October 2009

Rude Words and Piracy: A High Wind in Jamaica and the Child Reader

Richard Hughes's first and most famous book, A High Wind in Jamaica, is one of the strangest novels I've ever read, which is really saying something. It's both delightful and disturbing in the way it presents -- in an unfailingly light tone -- children as amoral aliens. The novel is rich with irony, and it's not a satire so much as a relentless attack on sentimental notions of childhood. The possible interpretations of the novel are likely endless, but in many ways the book itself is about interpretation -- about the futility of trying to interpret a child's experiences and thoughts through adult eyes. (It's also worth noting that the novel was first published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage, which I'm rather more fond of than its better-known title. It was also once illustrated by Lynd Ward.)

I was surprised this morning to discover an essay by British teacher Victoria de Rijke in a 1995 issue of Children's Literature in Education, "Reading the Child Invention", in which de Rijke explores the very concept of "children's literature" by having children read A High Wind in Jamaica. The majority of the essay consists of transcripts of a conversations de Rijke had with an 11-year-old who read the novel, Ayeshea Zacharkiw. It's possible that Zacharkiw was extremely precocious, but de Rijke writes of many other children who read and appreciated the book, too. Toward the end of the discussion, she asks Zacharkiw if she thinks Hughes's novel is a book for children or for grown-ups, and Zacharkiw says she thinks it depends on reading ability, and a child's willingness to use a dictionary.
AZ: ...It’s an old book as well, so it’s got all these old expressions, but I think anyone could read it whether they’re children or grown-ups. Yeah. It might take the children longer than older people, but cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages.
VdR: Right. I agree. And do you think there’s anything in it that adults now wouldn’t like children to read?
AZ: I don’t know why it’s been republished for adults. There are words in it I suppose, rude words (laughs) and piracy, but you can get horror books especially for children, but adults read them. Well, anyone can read any book. It’s just what level you are at reading, whether you like that particular type of book, and if you don’t like it, you can always put the book down.
VdR: Mmm, absolutely. You’re free to do that, aren’t you? It’s not in control of you! (laughs)
AZ: (laughs) No, course not. Once you’ve bought it. It doesn’t matter who you publish it for. Anyone can buy it and read it, or get it out of the library.
VdR: So what kind of particular type of book do you think this is?
AZ: Well, it’s about life. It’s about life on the schooner, and about children, as they’re the man characters, and about the difference between grown-ups and children, who’s in control.
De Rijke draws some interesting conclusions from this exchange:
Children’s observations are often valued by grown-ups for their blunt honesty and wisdom, for cutting through the adult flannel and exposing simple truths, most often because adults are already uncomfortable about hypocrisies which they are concealing. Ayeshea reminded me that there are a number of basic requirements for effective reading: a level of basic literacy, information retrieval and developmental skills ("cut at two year olds, cos you have to be sensible about ages"). What a terrifically blunt reminder of the low expectations teachers and adults have of reading potential! ... The act of reading cannot be controlled by publishers’ reading-age targeting, or price, given access to the library and a free choice of genre. In conversation, Ayeshea and I also emphasized, by the repetitive use we made of the word control the significance the book places on power relations, in terms of its subject. The term subject could be applied to both reader and plot.
It's a fine reminder not to underestimate readers.

For another view of the book, Francine Prose's introduction (PDF) to the NYRB edition is a good overview of some of its strange wonders and terrors. And I'm entirely in agreement with Mr. Waggish: "The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary."

In place of summary or analysis, I'll leave you with a direct quote from the middle of A High Wind in Jamaica:
In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human -- but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes they are animals -- why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a Praying Mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than 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 -- and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?