2010; 454 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Historical Fiction. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
Quick - in the 1630’s, where were the largest number of English settlers in the New World, Virginia or Massachusetts? It’s a trick question; the answer is the various “Lesser Antilles” islands in the eastern Caribbean, most notably, Barbados.
The first cash crop tried by the Barbadian settlers was tobacco, but it was soon evident that Virginia’s version was much better. So the Barbadians turned to sugar cane instead. There is a lot of money to be made in the sugar business.
But it comes at a cost.
What’s To Like...
The historical setting is unusual, feels “real”, and is fascinating to read about. Aye, these be swashbuckling times, matey, but pirates take a backseat here to independence, human rights, and even romance. Some social issues, such as feminism and slavery (and even a brief wink at gay rights) are tackled. Their resolution seemed to be a bit anachronistic, but it made for a better story.
The main characters are well-developed, albeit somewhat stereotyped. Indeed, it felt like the three components of the main love triangle were plucked straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, but without the foibles and punchlines. You can quickly figure out who will end up in whose bed, although I suppose this is true of any romance novel. Surprisingly, my favorite character was one of the baddies, Benjamin Briggs, who starts out all black, but due to a dominant trait of self-serving ambition, turns “gray” at times.
But it is as a piece of historical fiction that Caribbee shines. This is the second book I’ve read this year where the Sugar Industry is shown to be both a boon and a curse. It may create a reliable cash flow, but cultivating sugar cane is labor-intensive, and here on Barbados, it brought about a huge slavery problem. Do you think Thomas Hoover is hyper-fictionalizing this? Read Sarah Vowell’s excellent history, Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here, and see how sugar utterly destroyed the kingdom of Hawaii.
Caribbee is sprinkled with bits and pieces of several languages – French, Spanish, Portuguese, and (what I presume to be genuine) Yoruba. It works well here, and you don’t need to be fluent in any of these to understand what is going down. There’s one recurring typo that should be noted. Our hero’s ship is called the Defiance, and apparently somewhere late in the proofing, it was decided to put the name in italics. A “global change” was done, but alas, Thomas Hoover also likes to use that word in the storytelling. So you end up with a capitalized, italicized “Defiance” in the middle of sentences employing the word in its ordinary sense. This can get annoyingly confusing real fast.
Katherine studied her. “Do you believe in all those African deities yourself?”
“Who can say what’s really true, senhora?” Her smooth skin glistened from the heat. She brushed the hair from her eyes in a graceful motion, as though she were in a drawing room, while her voice retreated again into formality. “The Yoruba even believe that many different things can be true at once. Something no European can ever understand.” (loc. 1278)
“You do not own slaves, senhor. Yet you do nothing about those on this island who do.”
“What goes on here is not my affair. Other men can do what they like.”
“In Ife we say, ‘He who claps hands for the fool to dance is no better than the fool.’” He glanced back at the arsenal stored in the dark room behind him. “If you do nothing to right a wrong, then are you not an accomplice?” (loc. 4372)
At present, Caribbee is a free download at Amazon. Indeed, all of Thomas Hoover’s Kindle books are free right now. Wowza. Get ‘em while they’re hot, and thank the author by leaving a review on Amazon of the ones that you read.
If we do not bear suffering that will fill a basket, we will not receive kindness that will fill a cup. (loc. 1328)
The pacing in Caribbee is uneven. Most of the story (80% or so) takes place on and around Barbados, but frankly, none of the main plotlines get resolved there. Instead, the scene shifts to Jamaica for the last 20% of the book, where everything finally gets tied up. This made for an exciting ending, but it felt rushed.
I suspect the problem lies not with the writing skills of Thomas Hoover, but with the historical facts themselves. In truth, the independence movement on Barbados was a noble effort, but ultimately in vain. So the author had no choice but to switch locales to Jamaica.
I can’t help but think that this would have made one fantastic piece of Alternate History fiction. What if the opportunities for freedom on Barbados had not been missed? What if the British "enforcers" had been sent packing? How would that have affected the next 200 years of slavery in the Western Hemisphere? What would an independent Barbados have done to the British Empire in the New World? And in turn, what impact would that have on French, Spanish, and Dutch colonialism?
But I'm dreaming. Let’s be clear; Caribbee is a superior Historical Fiction novel, and an enjoyable read. The quibbles are minor, and are mostly due to historical realities, not to any failing on the author’s part.
8½ Stars. Highly recommended. Subtract ½ star if you aren’t into heroes who buckle their swashes.