As I neared the end of Gone to Drift, the tug of war between the politics of development and protection of the environment was trending in my own country, Antigua. According to reports from a watchdog group, destruction of mangroves was already in play at the site of a government-sanctioned resort development project. Round two or three for this particular bit of land and sea (which had drawn developer interest and watchdog protests since at least the mid-90s).
Once again, we were at the intersection of “jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and environmental stewardship. It’s a fault line running up and down our Caribbean, blessed with a beauty that draws people from all over the world to us, which makes tourism everybody’s business and anything that gets in the way of that a liability. What do mangroves do anyway? Only act as a buffer zone between land and sea, a shield during storms and such, protect our coastline from erosion, purify both the water and the air by absorbing impurities and pollutants, act as a breeding ground and nursery for marine life, and a harbor for not only fish, but amphibians, reptiles, birds, and some mammals, with proven importance to our fisheries sector as we need mangroves to play their role in the replenishment of fishstock and maintaining the sea’s all too rapidly disappearing biodiversity. Mangroves are also part of the tourism product as a locale for eco-tourism adventures such as kayaking (which I’ve been fortunate enough to do through mangroves at least twice in my landlubbing life). But, yeah, mangroves, who needs them. The irony is the very things we are so quick to uproot and destroy in the name of tourism are the very things which add to our appeal as a tourist destination. And that’s what was on my mind as the tension ramped up in Gone to Drift – a young boy racing against the clock to save his grandfather, a fisherman who had run afoul of dolphin poachers.
“His grandfather said Kingston Harbour had once been full of them, that no night’s fishing would have passed without seeing the shining mystery. ‘Where they go, Gramps?’ the boy had asked.
‘Sea too dirty for them.’
‘Why the sea get dirty?’
His grandfather had grunted. He was a man of the sea, not a man of words. Now Lloyd was sure he was lost at sea.”
The author of the book is Diana McCaulay who, when she’s not busy being an acclaimed Jamaican author, is racing a clock of her own; raising her voice against the short-sighted-ness of destroying the environment indiscriminately in the interest of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” (McCaulay is founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environmental Trust)
Locating her story in the world of the poorest of the poor, she shows an awareness of the realities that would drive men and women to this short-sighted-ness.
Speaking to the environmentalist who was helping him track down his grandfather and who was also trying to save the dolphins, Gone to Drift’s young and highly sympathetic protagonist Lloydie (the boy) asked:
“Why you trying to stop it?”
As much as his grandfather had taught him about the need to protect the seas which gave them life, he still had the practicality that environmentalists often run up against – now for now, later for later, man mus’ lib.
He mused, “…dolphins should be left in the sea where they belonged” sure… “but if the tourist places needed dolphins, they had to come from somewhere. And if money was to be made from capturing dolphins, there were a lot of them in the sea and many poor people would get some money.”
And that’s where we often find ourselves, and that’s what politicians have become so deft at manipulating (beats visioning a path to development that also factors in sustaining the environment).
So it’s hard not to think of these things as I read Gone to Drift, hard not to empathize with how overwhelmed Lloydie feels as forces bigger than himself align against him because in that sense he is the small man standing in path of the backhoe making a beeline for its latest environmental target and he is also the man behind the controls of the back hoe who has a family to feed, both pawns to the machinations of forces bigger than them, and the environment hangs in the balance. And the security guards who look like both will hustle hard when the walls are up to keep them both out – as the security guards at the hotel Lloyd tries to get in to to speak to the lady who could help and the guard at the hospital which doesn’t typically cater to people like him do in Gone to Drift.
But perhaps I’m projecting and he is just a boy trying to find his grandfather.
Remove the sub-text about the larger environmental issues and you still have a pulse quickening drama, and a poignant social narrative, at the heart of which is a boy you come to not only root for but love. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lloydie managed at least twice to bring tears to my eyes.
“Lloyd wiped his eyes. It was hopeless. He would never know his grandfather’s fate. Perhaps one day the wreckage of his boat would be found, maybe a splintered plank of wood with Water Bird written on it would wash up on the coast. He would never know. There would never be a grave anywhere, perhaps not even a funeral or a nine night. Maybe he would live the rest of his life waiting for Water Bird to round the point at Palisadoes until the span of a human life was finally over. How long would wondering last, how slowly could hope die?”
And this wasn’t even the first time I was reading his story.
See, Gone to Drift was a finalist for the 2015 Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature. A finalist in 2014, I was one of the Burt judges in 2015. I remember really enjoying this story, and reading it again was an odd mix of losing myself in it again and tracking the things that had changed between the time I had read it, in manuscript form, and now that it had been through the rigors of editing and was an actual book. I wondered if the tension wasn’t as tightly strung, or if I just knew too much; but in the end neither mattered because I still felt pulled to turn the pages, to find out what happened, and did it happen in time. And I’m still left at the end with an urge to pull Lloydie into a hug for the uncertainty of the world in which he now finds himself, and curious to find out, what happens next.
“If the boys waded into the sea, within a few steps they would be out of their depth and caught in a tearing current…”
McCaulay is good at what she does. Among her strengths, characterization – as I said Lloydie is as real to me as my own nephews and I feel as protective; and world building. World building, you say, but her story is set in Jamaica, it already exists. It does and it doesn’t. She admits to fictionalizing parts of that world. But even if you think you know that world, what she and all good writers remind us is that there is general knowing and there is specific knowing. And this is a world specifically of men and women of the sea. She had to put us there, then when the grandfather was a boy coming of age in St. Elizabeth and now, the bleaker reality Lloyd lives in in Kingston, where the sea has become a desert and desperate men and women make ill-conceived choices. She draws that world vividly and poignantly and beautifully.
Is Jules a little too good to be true? Maybe. She really does go out of her way to help a boy she barely knows. Are some of the characters’ motivations a bit murky? Yeah, I mean why would someone everyone agrees is mixed up in the badness even give the boy looking for the grandfather who may have fallen victim to that badness the time of day much less his phone number?
But these are minor quibbles in a story that is well paced, well drawn, well characterized and in which the author reminds us that while this is first and foremost about family, the stakes are much, much bigger than one missing man. A whole way of life has slipped away, people have turned on themselves and their own best interest. And what is one little boy in such a world?
The realities are heavy for a young adult book, because the author keeps it real; but, you know what, Lloydie’s journey also reminds us that it’s not your size but your heart that matters.
Well done, McCaulay. A timely read. One teens and young adults of the region will find enjoyable as they piggyback the persistent boy’s adventures – including one notable chapter as a stowaway on a coast guard ship; and one adults – unable to ignore the larger implications – will find revealing, topical, and, perhaps, inspiring.
I suggested earlier that I may be projecting. And I may. But I know this, McCaulay’s writing is not distinct from her advocacy.
“Will stories induce us to act, I wondered? I am not sure. But I do know this – stories make us feel, in a way no scientific recitation of facts can accomplish.” She wrote this in one of her posts while serving as a Commonwealth Writer in Residence, and it suggests to me that there is a link, though perhaps not always deliberate, between what she writes and the issues she comes across in her work as an environmental warrior. That is not to say that she writes in a didactic (or even pedantic) fashion, she doesn’t, there is still the organic pull to story, the instincts that drive any creative writer at play. When I interviewed McCaulay shortly after her Commonwealth short story win for the Dolphin Catchers, where we were first introduced to the characters in Gone to Drift, she said of the origin of the story, “an image came to me of a boy sitting on a wall beside Kingston Harbour in the rain. Nothing else, not why he was there, or who he was. I sat down to describe this image and the rest of the story kind of came to me. If I were making this into a novel, I would start writing down things about the main characters, the storyline, possibly an outline of chapters, before just writing.”
As her author notes at the back of Gone to Drift indicate there was a lot of that extra work, including extensive research put in, but, first it was that evocative image that worked to (and succeeded at) pull(ing) us in:
“The boy sat beside the crumbling wall and stared out to sea. It was full dark and rain hissed on the water, but he was sheltered from the downpour where he sat…”
p.s. Diana McCaulay’s Gone to Drift is published by Papillotte Press which presented a copy of the book as a prize for the 2016 cycle of the Wadadli Pen Challenge (a fact that had no bearing on my enthusiastic recommendation of this teen/young adult page turner). It’s a good read. For other good reads (according to me), search for ‘blogger on books’ to your right.
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Fish Outta Water, and Musical Youth – fyi in Oh Gad! development v. the traditional use of the land is a one of the plot threads). All Rights Reserved. Seriously, a lot of time, energy, love and frustration goes in to researching and creating content for this site; please don’t just take it up just so without even a please, thank you or an ah-fu-she-subben (credit). If you enjoyed it, check out my page on WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.