Saturday, November 04, 2017

47. Corentyne Thunder by Edgar Mittelholzer

Picked this up at a Polish Church bazaar.  It's literature!  I'm very impressed with myself.

Corentyne Thunder was written in 1938, Mittelholzer's first book but published after he had somewhat established himself as a Caribbean writer.  It takes place in British Guiana and is the story of a very poor farmer and his two daughters.  They are literally dirt-poor, having only one set of cloths, living in a mud hut and earning money by selling milk from their cows.  The father, Ramgolall, is a coolie of East Indian descent who came over first as an indentured servant, until he bought himself out and was able to establish a small bit of land and some cows.  Despite their very tough existence, they are basically happy.  Interestingly, his daughter from a previous marriage ended up marrying the wealthy, educated cow baron who had been wooing her when she was young and pretty and now her children are being raised educated and comfortable.  So there is an incredible range of class and education in their small world in colonial Guiana.  Race is added somewhat to the mix with black and white characters, but they are mostly on the fringe.

The story itself has an overall narrative arc, but really the enjoyment in this book is learning about their daily lives, the interaction between them and their wealthier relatives and the society in general in Guiana in this period.  I love this kind of stuff.  Written very directly with no unnecessary tension or drama, the text envelopes you in its world.  Sad stuff happens, but it is all very benevolent, compared to what you might think about most colonial writing.  Mittelholzer himself was not a happy man, suffering because he was of mixed black and white race and I do not think anyone would consider his work an apology for colonialism.  It is my own bias of knowing people from the South Caribbean of Indian descent who generally seem quite happy with their lot in life. That is a similar vibe I got from this book, that while there was great inequality, it didn't seem to impact the day-to-day happiness of the people and it felt that there was opportunity for education and the possibility of a family lineage bettering itself.  Again, it's not written as if everything was hunky-dory.  Their lives are portrayed as quite exhausting and physically uncomfortable and there are small injustices and bad behaviours by those in power.  In general, though, the characters happiness is not a function of their station in life and the interaction between the races and class levels has that relaxed Caribbean vibe that makes for a very pleasant read.

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