by Tiphanie Yanique
Eona’s mother’s people come from Anegada, an island known for shipwrecks. (Around 150 between 1654 and 1899)
- More crabs and lobsters than people.
- Everyone knows (and is usually related to) everyone else.
- No electricity.
Eona (He Owns Her) father is a ship captain based on St. Thomas — Owen Arthur Bradshaw, who steals Eona’s mother away from a local lobsterman . Like most people in the Virgin Islands, Owen is a mixture of European, Indigenous West Indian, and African.
The best lobster in the Carribean come from Anegada, the drowned land, or so they say
The V.I. were originally the home of Ciboney, Carib, and Arawak people. Then came Christopher Columbus — misnaming the islands for St. Ursula and her virgin followers — colonization, sugarcane, slavery; the same old sad story. Denmark freed its slaves in the 1800s, and found it could no longer squeeze a hefty profit from the islands. In 1917, the U.S., worried about German submarines, bought the islands for $25 million.
(There are also British Virgin Islands, which I will deal with later.)
Captain Owen Bradshaw has a mistress, Rebekah, an obeah woman — a spellcaster. But the Bradshaw women are not without magic of their own. No-one in the islands, it turns out, is just one thing.
Daughter Eona is raised on stories of the mythical Duene — an ocean people in Carribean folklore whose feet face backward. There is also the spider man Anancy, who bears a strong resemblance to one of her future lovers. It is good that she has the stoires to sustain her, because she is soon to be orphaned when her father’s ship, The Homecoming, goes down and her mother dies of a pneumonia-like illness. Now she has to raise her baby sister Anette.
The story begins in 1917, as Denmark transfers its “ownership” to the United States and the occupants of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, etc. became technical Americans.
Transfer Day is celebrated with a big Bacchanal, or party of celebration. But just a few decades later, all the V.I. men (plus most of the islands of Puerto Rico) get drafted to go fight for “their” country. But the worst of all the white people are…the tourists.
Eona’s and Anette’s childhood home, Villa by the Sea, is purchased and turned into the Hibiscus Hotel and Resort. The beaches are chained off and marked “Private Property”. Worst of all, Eona’s little sister Anette, the daughter of a man with a landed name, is propositioned on the road by a white lady whose chambermaid has been deported back to Antilla or Antigua or something. The “Contenientals” are not only rude but clueless.
In the 1960s Eona’s baby sister Anette sparks a series of beach “lime-ins” and other protests, eventually making the beaches accessible to everyone. Anette’s oldest daughter Ronalda, another rebellious woman making for freedom, goes to school in the States.
Reclaiming the Stories
Author Yanique, who was raised in the V.I., says she wrote this novel as a rebuttal to Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival. Wouk’s V.I. farce was published in 1965 and is, in Yanique’s words, full of stereotypical Carribean characters. Buffoons as seen from the white male American’s view. Blech.
Blackbeard’s Castle: Built by the Danes in 1679 and commandeered by Edward Teach in the 1800s. this is one of 5 National Historic Landmarks in the V.i>
Yanique said that as a Virgin Islander, she doesn’t feel Wouk’s book shows her and her experiences. (In her novel, Rolanda says she is impressed with how “real” American Blacks feel…because she sees their portraits in magazines, newspapers and on T.V. whereas the Virgin Islands are basically invisible.)
In Land of Love and Drowning, Wouk’s hotel cook, Sheila, gets a last name and an inner life. A talented but violent handyman named Hippolyte (Mr. Lyte) reappears, now more the holy fool, less the dangerous lunatic. The hotel itself reflects the views of the islanders on the development inflicted on them by obnoxious, impure, greedy Continentals who seem to exist only to buy land and drink guavaberry rum.
Land of Love and Drowning is also a response to a soft-porn film called “Girls Are for Loving,” which was shot in the Virgin Islands in the 1970s. The film crew employed local people as extras, Yanique says, but did not inform them of the film’s sexual content. (Since she was told this story by her grandmother, I have to wonder whether Grandma was edting a bit. Surely they couldn’t ALL have been that naive…?)
Tiphanie Yanique based her book on family history
Unlike the Wouk, Yanique’s work is a real-feeling inter-generational magical realism–a historical novel in which the strong female characters dominate the weak-willed male, despite the women’s apparent lack of power. The women are intermeshed with each other through myth, love, incest, family, history and story. Living on a chain of 52 islands turns out to be a lot like growing up in a small town where everyone is up in your business and you have to be careful about dating because someone could be your cousin.. You not knowing, could create a baby with said cousin, falling in lifetime love.
Rating: Five Conch Shells
I really enjoyed the novel. One criticism: the narrator was omnipresent most of the time, but then once in awhile, he/she would slip into a “We” voice, which sounded like an old person narrating events from his or her youth. But the narrator was not Annette, the slutty younger sister, or Eona, the resentfully proper older sister. So that was a little jarring.
But because it only ripped me out of the story 4-5 times, and because I couldn’t put the novel down and it was so well written…I give it 5 conch shells.