Caribbean Reading…

Four favorites set in the Caribbean — two for adults; two for young readers — that easily tuck into a carry-on bag.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  First published in 1966, this novel takes its theme from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  For years Ms. Rhys had been haunted by Jane Eyre because she felt that a big part of the story was left out — the story of Rochester’s wife, the madwoman in the attic.   In this novel Rhys imagines her, Antoinette Cosway, as a young woman in the Caribbean growing up on a decaying plantation.  She is married off to a cold-hearted Englishman who takes her away from her island home, the only place she has ever known, and makes her pay for her family’s sins of slaveholding by enslaving her as a prisoner in his attic.  The New York Times called the novel “Caribbean gothic” with an “almost hallucinatory quality.”

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The Orchid House by Phyliss Shand Allfrey was first published in 1954.  Set on the island of Dominica, it tells the story of the three daughters of a once-powerful white family now living in poverty.  The story is told through the eyes of Lally, the black nurse to the three sisters.  She watches each one of them leave the island for England and America and eventually come back, trying to recapture the magic of a lost childhood, to be with the man they love, to search for identity during this crucial time in West Indian history.  A great deal of the novel is autobiographical.  Ms. Allfrey worked for many years as a writer, activist, political leader, and newspaper editor, waging battle against her own class in order to enpower the peasantry and laboring classes in the Caribbean.  This novel is set in a time when kerosene lanterns provided the only light, but the natural world of the Caribbean will be familiar to anyone traveling to the islands today — the “gales from the sea” and the “rare begonias that dance between the tree ferns.”

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The Cay by Theodore Taylor.  A bestselling classic tale for young readers about a young white boy and an old black man who are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck in the Caribbean.  Phillip, who is eleven, is blinded during the wreck and rescued by Timothy, an old black sailor.  During the long months they are stranded Timothy teaches Phillip how to survive.

Timothy of the Cay by Theodore Taylor.  This companion book was published after The Cay, but the story is a prequel, beginning long before the shipwreck.  It follows Timothy as a young boy growing up on the island of St. Thomas and dreaming of becoming a ship’s captain.  The chapters alternate between the first-person narration of Philip recuperating on a rescue ship in the 1940s and the third-person account of Timothy’s life, beginning in 1884.  Different times, different worlds, and two very different characters have a lot to teach each other (and us) about courage and the importance of dreams.

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