UVI = US Virgin Islands
Eona’s mother’s people come from Anegada, an island known for shipwrecks. (Around 150 between 1654 and 1899.) “The Drowned Land” also:
- has no electricity
- contains more crabs and lobsters than people
- is a place where everyone knows (and is usually related to) everyone else
Eona means He Owns Her. The girl’s owner (father) is a ship’s 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. Now, Captain 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 Caribbean folklore whose feet face backward. There is also the spider god/man Anancy, who bears a strong resemblance to one of her future lovers. It is good that young Eona has the stories to sustain her, because she is soon orphaned when her father’s ship, The Homecoming, goes down and her mother dies of pneumonia. Now she has to raise her baby sister Anette.
AVI on the World Stage
Anagada, St. Thomas, and similar Caribbean islands were originally the home of the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawak peoples. Then came Christopher Columbus — misnaming the islands for St. Ursula and her virgin followers — colonization, sugarcane and slavery.
Some time later, Denmark ended up owning the islands that became the AVI. After that country freed its slaves in the 1800s, it could no longer squeeze a hefty profit from its overseas islands. Revenues declined to the point where Denmark sold the islands to the US in 1917 for $25 million. (We were worried about German submarines, thus our interest.)
Transfer Day is celebrated with a big Bacchanal, or party of celebration. But just a few decades later, all the VI men (plus most in the islands of Puerto Rico) get drafted to go fight WWII for “their” country. But the worst of all the white people are not the politicians…they 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–she doesn’t know the difference. The “Contenentals” 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 VI, says she wrote this novel as a rebuttal to Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival. Wouk’s VI 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.
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 TV whereas the Virgin Islands are basically invisible. This observation resonated with me after living in Japan in the late 1990s where the big TV and movie stars were never Japanese. )
In Land of Love and Drowning, Wouk’s hotel cook, Sheila, gets the last name and inner agency Wouk didn’t write for her. 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, 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 editing a bit. Lol.)
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.
Like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, this historical novel is a tale centered on ordinary people, people like you and me who are caught up in huge historical events beyond their comprehension or control.
Rating: Five Conch Shells
I really enjoyed the novel. One criticism: the narrator was omnipresent most of the time, but the few times they slipped into a “We” voice, it was jarring. The “we” sounds like an old person narrating events from his or her youth. But trying to figure out if the narrator was slutty Annette, resentfully proper Eona, an amalgam of ancestors or something else was jarring. Still, I couldn’t put the novel down and it was so well written…
I give it 5 conch shells. For more on Anagada, see my blog on Sun, Sand, Murder.