Thursday, September 7, 2017

Wind From the Carolinas by Robert Wilder


Source of book: Borrowed from my brother

My wife apparently had started but not finished this book at some point, but I hadn’t heard of it until my brother mentioned it during a discussion with us and some other friends of cool books we should read. He owned an old copy of it, which I borrowed. It is out of print, but appears to be available reasonably readily on Amazon and Ebay as a used book. My brother, in turn, discovered the book because of...seriously, I am not making this up...Jimmy Buffett. True story. Actually, Buffett put out a list some years ago of his favorite books, and of the ones my brother and I have read, I have to say he has good and thoughtful taste. (The other highlight is West With The Night, pilot Beryl Markham’s memoir. Definitely read that one.) 



Not only had I not heard of this book, the historical events which form the backbone of the story were likewise unknown to me. The book itself is fiction, and the action follows a fictional family over the course of about 150 or so years and multiple generations. Those events are fictional. But the context in which the story takes place is true, and the author scrupulously researched the history to ensure the book was accurate in all the important details.

In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, all was not well for certain people. We tend to forget them (at least here in the US) in the glow of the successful founding of our nation, but what did happen to the Tories? You know, those who were British loyalists during the war? Needless to say, they were not popular with the victors. In some cases, their real estate was confiscated. Others were subjected to harassment. And others simply did not feel comfortable in a nation that was at least in principle devoted to democracy and the equality of (white) men. In addition, there were those in the South who feared that these democratic ideals would inevitably lead to the abolition of slavery. (In reality, the British empire would abolish slavery decades before the United States would, and wouldn’t require a bloody war to do it. But nobody knew that in 1780.)

So what were the options? Well, many Tories returned to England. If they had family or property there, they generally took this choice. And remember, Tories were on average the wealthy, who had a stake in continued British rule. The average working class colonist was likely to be on the side of the revolution.

But there was another option, which many took. The British government offered those Tories who wished to resettle extensive free land in the Bahamas, should they wish to start a new life there.

Believe it or not, around 7,000 loyalists were resettled there - plus their slaves in many cases. By that time, the Bahamas were occupied by a motley assortment of people. A few of the native Tainos managed to survive smallpox and colonization. Some British administrators and soldiers and former sailors and their families lived there. And also the descendents of the pirates that had used the islands as a base 100 years prior.  It also was a haven for freed slaves - the British navy released those from illegal slaving ships there. With the huge influx of the enslaved along with the white loyalists, the population boomed - and became even more tilted toward a non-white majority.  

As for the loyalists, in many cases, they attempted to re-create their lives on the islands, attempting to grow cotton and build (or even transport by ship) large plantation houses. That this was doomed to failure was obvious in retrospect, although apparently not at the time. The soil was not suited to cotton, imported goods were exhorbitantly expensive, and no major cash crop ever succeeded. Thus, it was a combination of subsistence farming, sisal export, and fishing that most ended up turning to eventually.

Wind From the Carolinas follows the family of Ronald Cameron through this period of history. He packs up his family, slaves, and even the bricks of his mansion, and transports them to Exuma. Things do not, shall we say, go as planned. Nevertheless, the family makes a go of it, after a fashion. And, as must necessarily happen, new blood is infused from time to time which invigorates the Camerons and heralds a new phase in their existence.

Most notable of these is Juan Cadiz, a “conch” of dubious and doubtful parentage, a bit of a drifter and ne’er-do-well who seduces Ronald’s daughter Caroline. Not a great start, perhaps, but Juan ends up holding things together during hard times, eventually becoming a family legend. 

 What Great Exuma looks like when not getting shredded by a hurricane.

With the changes forced on them, the Camerons must adapt and find new sources of revenue for survival. With the slaves freed in 1834, the availability and cost of labor shifted. At various times, therefore, the Camerons took on different projects, often of dubious legality. Juan Cadiz buys a schooner and decides to become a smuggler (something he is eminently qualified to do) and bring goods to the Bahamas around the British tariffs, placed on all goods from the United States as part of the lingering feud left over from the Revolution and later the War of 1812.

Later, new generations would run the blockade during the Civil War, then smuggle arms to Cuba to aid the failed revolution. And life would go on. Some of the family would move back to Charleston and go into trade or banking. Others would stay on the island.

But it isn’t just these economic details or the adventures they bring that the book is concerned with. The human drama is central to the story. The widowed Ronald has a brief affair with the wife of the governor, who is forced by pride to accept the child as his own. After he dies in a cholera epidemic, the child is left with Ronald as the mother returns to England to seek her fortune in a new marriage. Caroline elopes with Juan. Later, their daughter Bahama, unaware of David’s true parentage, falls in love with him, and the fallout from that ends with David moving to Charleston, never to see her again. Bahama later marries the captain of her father’s ship. A later descendant will marry the daughter of a Cuban revolutionary. Their daughter will have a tragic fling with an abusive young man in Charleston that results in a child. And on it goes.

One thing that really struck me about this book was a sense of aching sadness. And not because the book is intended to be depressing. Instead, it is honest about the progression of life. Characters who begin as young grow old, then die. And they go from energetic and visionary to frail and cautious. Then the next generation takes over. Probably the most heartbreaking scene is the old Juan Cadiz, who has outlived his love Caroline by two decades, and is crippled by Parkinsons. The fire has mostly gone out, and there is little left but to wait for death. And this is, sadly, the human experience for many of us. Not that it was better to get eaten by a predator before we grew old, but still.

Another theme in this book that was interesting is the need to change and adapt. Ronald is stubborn as heck. In an exchange early in the book, Ronald says of the captain who brought him to the Bahamas, “He is a stubborn ass and I shall say so in a letter to his superiors.” The governor’s aide muses that the quality of obstinacy was not confined to the master of the ship. Ronald is devoted to the old ways, and the old culture, and thus finds the islands to be a shock. Just in one instance, the man hired to pilot the ketch they use to travel between the islands gets a bit too “familiar” with Ronald, who takes offense.

Cameron regarded the trio with a tight anger. He was far from being adjusted to such casual familiarity from those he employed. There was a deference due to the man who paid the wages. It should spring automatically from those who accepted them.

Hmm, it seems to me that there is still a bit of this idea going around in our discussions. That laborers should just be grateful for whatever they get, and show more respect, even as inequality has risen dramatically. Those at the top are not content to be rich, they want an acknowledgement of their superiority too. And thus it has always been.

But Ronald’s stubbornness will be his undoing. Caroline will eventually defy him and run away with Juan. Ronald recognized her personality early, but he is unable to adapt to it. “Caroline has a will of her own. It is a facet of character I would prefer to see in a man.”

And that too is a problem, because his son Robert Bruce lacks that independence and never really pleases his father because of that. It is not until Ronald’s death that he is able to break free, return to Charleston, and pursue the life that he wanted all along.

This unwillingness to bend to reality, even to nature itself, is why Ronald is eventually broken, literally, by the forces he will not bend for.

Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to Ronald and the events surrounding him. The entire rest of the story is crammed into the second half, which is in some ways too bad, because it feels like each successive generation gets less room to tell their story. It would have been nice to have gotten to know Brian or Walter, for example, as well we do Ronald and Juan, or Bahama, Marta, and Maria as well as we do Caroline. But, the book isn’t exactly short either, and not everyone writes a series like Galsworthy. Because of the way the book was written, there are often large gaps in time. An incident will play out, then we skip ahead 20 years, people have died, people have been born, and we have to adjust to a new reality.

Ronald’s fight against change happens on a few different fronts. He doesn’t live to see the end of slavery, but he does run up against the changing mores regarding power (see the employment quote above) and gender. His daughter’s rebellion is just one of the instances. In fact, part of the blame for his affair lies with his inability to see women as fully equivalent to men. In an interesting exchange, his mistress is frank with him about sexual desire.

“Your are a little outside my experience.” He made the confession with a trace of embarrassment. “In a matter where you should incline to a blushing confusion or a modest reticence, you are as blunt as a man.”

“You have led a sheltered life, Ronald.” She made the statement with a tender derision. “Save for certain, desirable, physical differences, a man and a woman are much alike. It is hypocrisy not to admit it. We slake our thirst at the same fount.”

And then she switches to a question about Juan and Caroline. Because she, unlike Ronald, understands their passion for each other.

This whole exchange seems somewhat familiar to me as well. I was raised very much in a culture that believed women to “trade sex for love.” Meaning that they didn’t really desire sex for its own sake. Of course, this was baloney, so the real meaning was that women couldn’t really admit a sex drive, but were expected to focus on finding an economically favorable match. (Really about what Ronald focused on for his children too. An economically and socially favorable match.) When faced with a woman who dispenses with the hypocrisy and says what she wants, he doesn’t cope well. He ends up having a child with her, despite his not really being in love, and later, when he might have married her after her husband’s death, his discomfort with her bluntness keeps him from taking a step that seems as if it would have been positive for both of them, to say nothing of their child.

Sadly, this failure - and Ronald’s failure to acknowledge the truth of David’s parentage until long after he should have - end up creating further problems down the road, and separating the family. That becomes the story of the family, in my opinion. Those who adapt succeed, and those who refuse to bend are broken.

There is so much more in this book, but this review has already gone on too long. Wilder writes well, and the book doesn’t seem particularly dated. (It was written in the 1960s.) It has a story that is unique and interesting, but also timeless themes. The world changes, culture changes, what once was taken for granted ends up being useless in a new situation. Life, love, and family have never been as simple as some would have you believe, and they too have and will continue to evolve to meet changing circumstances. You can never go back to growing cotton with slaves while the women in long dresses twirl at debutante balls. The age of sail is gone and isn’t coming back any time soon. Political alliances and rivalries shift. Neither doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result nor trying to hammer society, culture, and economics back into the mold of the past will be effective. We must all change, adapt, and make our way in the world we have, or we too will be broken by forces to great for us.

Definitely an interesting book, and one that is worth seeking out.

***

I couldn’t find a way to work it into the body of the review, but there is an interesting exchange between Ronald and his son Robert Bruce early on when Ronald allows Robert to try some wine. Alcohol runs through the book as well, with a decided contrast between the taste Ronald has for imported spirits and the local rum the family ends up producing. But this bit from Ronald is fun more for the history than anything.

“I remarked before that the Scots are a stubborn lot, but they hold no candle to the Englishman. Take this wine, for example. It is called ‘sack.’ In truth, it is a French word, sec. But the Englishman will not tolerate the foreign pronunciation. He twists it to suit himself as he does with sherry, which comes from a district in Spain called Jerez. Now there is a word which sits uneasily on an Englishman’s tongue. He calls it ‘sherry’ and the Spaniards be damned.”

Both a fun bit of history and a commentary on the arrogant xenophobia the citizens of empire tend to reflexively exhibit.

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