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A Delightfully Evil Tale Of Pirates And Children

A few years ago, I was telling everyone I knew that I wished I could recapture the feeling about literature I had when I was young. Back then, reading great fiction never felt like work — it was a very private kind of joy.

Then a close friend, the writer Daniel Handler, handed me Richard Hughes' 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica, which had recently (and beautifully) been republished by The New York Review of Books.

I took the book with me to the Yaddo Artist Colony in upstate New York, where I was at work on a new novel, and one snowy day I read the whole thing in one gulp.

It was remarkable. Tiny. Crazy. I felt just like I did as a kid.

To say A High Wind in Jamaica is a novel about children who are abducted by pirates is to make it seem like a children's book. But that's completely wrong; its theme is actually how heartless children are.

The story begins almost whimsically in Jamaica, with five English children surviving a hurricane. Later on, as the ship is returning to Europe, we enter Treasure Island territory when the vessel is boarded by pirates.

Here's where it gets good, because the pirates and the children begin to switch places. At first the pirates are the brutal ones, drinking heavily and throwing people overboard as pirates will. But the children have such a deformed sense of right and wrong that it's soon the pirates who are frightened of them.

Eventually our heroine, little Emily, murders a man in cold blood — to the pirates' dismay. And when the children are at last rescued to England, our Emily performs one final bit of cruelty as simply as throwing a tea party for her dolls.

Some books inspire one to read, and some inspire one to write; for selfish reasons, I'm always looking for the latter. I'm greedy for fresh storytelling, and that's why I return time and again to A High Wind in Jamaica.

I'm like a thief visiting a rare diamond he dreams one day of stealing, and the passage I would most like to lift comes late in the book, when little Emily, ending her reign of terror, lies bed-bound on the rescue ship with a pet baby alligator on her chest. The two monsters stare into each others' eyes. Then, to Emily's delight, the tiny creature bites her and crawls into her dress to fall asleep.

"It is surprising," we are told, "that she could stand it, as she did, without flinching."

There is a chilling blank space below this sentence, and then this: "Alligators," the narrator informs us, "are utterly untamable."

So, it seems in this astounding little parable, are children; still savage, they simply vanish inside the adults they will become.

A High Wind in Jamaica is like those books you used to read under the covers with a flashlight — only infinitely more delicious ... and macabre.

You Must Read This is produced by Ellen Silva.

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Andrew Sean Greer