The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

Mangrove Swamp

It ain’t Swiss Family Robinson.  The Fox family—the subject of this excellent but grim novel by Paul Theroux—lights out for jungle territory. While the Swiss version has been a classic since its publication in 1812—its popularity enhanced by the Disney film version—this 1982 novel has all of the tragedy and none of the light-heartedness of the earlier tale. Yes, there is a moment midway when it appears that the Fox family may actually succeed in homesteading in the Honduran jungle, but this Swiss Family Robinson moment is short-lived, sabotaged by Allie Fox, the patriarch of the family. Let me emphasize that word patriarch, as he is an obsessed paranoid controlling father/husband, who also happens to be a genius inventor. He’s proud of his latest invention, a box that can produce ice without electricity.

His wife is called “Mother” throughout the novel, depersonalized and nameless. And perhaps that is justified, as she is complicit in her husband’s insane journey from New England to the inhospitable tropics where he demands that she and their four children—all under age 13–follow. And follow is also deliberately chosen. Allie Fox is a leader and woe to anyone who disputes his directions.

This is a family version of Lord of the Flies, and I do not mean that it’s G-rated but that the Fox family becomes just as savage as those English schoolboys marooned on a desert island. Allie Fox, who left Harvard to get a “real education,” aims to depart their home on a farm in New England as he’s sure that the US is going to self-destruct. They leave almost all of their belongings and hop a banana boat to La Ceiba, Honduras, meeting on board a missionary family, the Spellgoods. Allie’s goal is to get as far away from civilization as possible, and he enlists the help of Mr. Haddy, who has a launch, to take the family to a ghost town, Jeronimo, that is covered with overgrowth. Although their tents are chewed by pacas (night rats)—which they kill and eat—eventually, they establish a decent home and outbuildings (as well as a factory for making ice!) through their own labor and the hard work of the native Zambus.

Pygmy Bats

The locals call Allie “Fadder,” just one instance of the religious symbolism that abounds throughout the novel. Charlie Fox, the eldest of the four children, serves as the narrator, and when he first sees what he thinks a man—it is in actuality a scarecrow—being hoisted on a cross in a field during the first pages of the novel, it’s clear that the family—termed “the first family” by Allie—will be metaphorically establishing a new “Eden.” And, Allie has definite feelings of being godlike, just as he’s also anti-religion.

Estuary with canoe

The ominous foreshadowing is pervasive. Charlie says when watching a migratory bird caught in a spider’s web, “It worried me to think that we were a little like that bird.” The mountain peaks are described threateningly as “the spike backs of monster lizards and others like molars.” On a trip to deliver ice to a distant tribe, Father looks “like a white corpse that had crawled out of the grave.”

This will be a difficult book for many. The children are often put in harm’s way, and “Mother” seems too afraid to protest. Frankly, I resisted including this title on my RoadWorks list as I knew that it would be depressing, but I finally capitulated as I also knew that it would be well written. And it is. The film version of The Mosquito Coast seems to suggest that Allie Fox descends into madness after his ice experiment fails, but it is clear in the novel that he is unbalanced from page one. I plowed through the tale as quickly as possible to get to its end as I was in a funk the entire time reading it, not necessarily conducive to a vacation. The ending is inevitable, but I was relieved to know from the dedication at the front of the book that “Charlie Fox” lived to tell the tale to Theroux.

On the lagoon

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Honduras from the Back of a Mule

Six Days on the Hurricane Deck of a Mule: An Account of a Journey made on Mule back in Honduras, C.A. in August, 1891

Almira Stillwell Cole, NY: Knickerbocker Press 1893.

Honduras Mountain View

For about 25 years, I’ve played bridge with a woman who was born in Honduras in 1922, but who came to the USA when only 10 to attend school. She passed away a few years ago, shortly after the death of her husband. Sara sometimes recounted at the bridge table the journey that took her from her home in Honduras to the USA. She rode for several days on horseback to travel from her home in the interior to the coast, where she could continue by ship. When I came across this title, Six Days on the Hurricane Deck of a Mule, in my search for books appropriate to my own journey to Honduras, it seemed a fitting tribute to Sara that I include this late 19thcentury title in my RoadWorks list. I am so glad that I did.

Almira Stillwell Cole, the author of this short memoir, made the trip in reverse, by steamer from New York to Colon, then by rail to Panama, a second steamer to Amapala, and then by muleback over the mountains to Yuscaran. She undertakes the journey “with all the assurance and independence of a typical American young woman” (circa 1890), and she is not dissuaded by friends who warn her of the dangers of such a venture. She even tries to learn to ride a bicycle as she’s been told that it is somewhat akin to writing a mule. She departs from a young ladies’ boarding school, prepared to live for the next five years in Honduras, having made the acquaintance of a couple of young men—younger than she—when they were schoolboys. One of them, Vincent, is her guide—along with servants—through the interior.

Blue Euphonium in highlands

Her sea voyage is “delightful,” and she wonders why anyone would find her journey horrific. The captain wisely notes that once she has been on the “hurricane deck” of a mule she might have a different opinion. And thus, the rather inscrutable title of her memoir is created. By the way, the hurricane deck of a steamer is the very high one, a great look-out perch. Cole tells the story with panache and is able to laugh at her own naiveté about this incredible excursion. Even though she is one tough cookie, she still is attuned to the conventions of the time, appalled at the idea of sleeping arrangements at one way station in which a male shares the large open room.

Bromeliad in the jungle

Cole has a keen eye for details, noting the rider they meet who wears spurs on his bare feet, the familiar American barbed wire in unexpected places, and lizards like the “bashful little squirrels at home.” She loses 25 pounds in six weeks’ time, learning that riding muleback is actually worse than even her friends predicted. But she loves her new address in Honduras. As she puts it, “I choose to stay here and grow up with the country.”

Little alley in Yuscarán, Honduras

Little alley in Yuscarán, Honduras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her memoir of her trip, which seems to have been written as a very long letter to a friend, was published posthumously “for distribution among her relatives and friends” in1893, only a couple of years after the journey. Discovering more about Almira Stillwell Cole has been difficult, but she seems a fascinating personality with a lot of intelligence and spunk. Much like my friend Sara. I can imagine that Cole’s passing created a void, and her well-written and sprightly tale of her journey continues a legacy. In retrospect, she and the mule had much in common. This is a story that would provide an enjoyable hour for any reader–and it’s available for free.

Gringos in Paradise—Honduras Style

I am composing this RoadWorks blog while in a hammock on the porch of my cabin at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, which is described in Malana Ashlie’s 2007 memoir, Gringos in Paradise: Our Honduras Odyssey this way:

. . . a lodge of rustic elegance nestled on the edge of the National Park. It was a wonderland of nature. Beauty and serenity were available at every turn of the head. We walked graveled trails where beautifully colored butterflies and tropical birds flittered through the brush, riding the fragrant breezes of an unspoiled ran forest.

That is an accurate description of our accommodations with cabins tucked among the former cacao plantation trees, and trails extending to Unbelievable Falls, Mermaid Falls, and Las Pilas—all terrific swimming holes on Rio Coloradito.

In addition to butterflies, the grounds has a lot of Agouti–a rodent type animal–scurrying around looking for food.

Agouti

 

 

 

Ashlie’s autobiographical narrative describes the realization on her 50th birthday that it is time to pull up stakes from Hawaii and venture into new territory with her husband Ordin and their cat Pueo. Having her natal chart read by an astrologer helps her make the decision, and they embark on scouting the world for a likely next residence: Honduras proves to be the right spot for them even though they know little Spanish. They choose a village close to La Ceiba (named for the tree) on the Caribbean coast.

The book focuses on the nuts and bolts of making such a move, and as such, it is not really a travelogue. There are tidbits of information on Honduras that I found helpful, such as the fact that Trujillo (where O. Henry stayed while writing Cabbages and Kings) is the former capital of the country but was moved when pirates blockaded the Caribbean coast. The average worker earns about 100 Lempiras a day ($5) while a skilled carpenter can earn 40 Lempiras an hour ($2). The ubiquitous pulperias are family-owned tiny stores within a neighborhood. School buses from the USA are transferred to Honduras where they serve as public transportation; it can be a bit disconcerting to see the big yellow bus pull up to a bus stop and adults enter and exit. Although the main roads are paved, many in villages and to tourist sites are not. Most homes have walled courtyards and gates, which is not just about security but also tradition. Cultural aspects such as neighbors helping neighbors are also noted.

The New Age sensibility of the couple appears throughout the book, and depending on the reader’s perspective, this may seem off-putting—as with the friend who connects with dolphin energy for healing—or, it may be in tune with those who value meditation and prayer. Ashlie offers extended narrative about the move and its preparation and then follows with brief vignettes on life in their new home, focusing on such themes as getting the just the right birthday card for the gardener, finding a cook/housekeeper, and dealing with Internet access.

While it would have been nice to have a good editor on hand, Gringos in Paradise relates a heartfelt story, and it’s impossible not to wish this nice couple well in their new home.

O. Henry’s Banana Republic: Cabbages and Kings

William Sydney Porter

Image via Wikipedia

When I go on a quest for Road Works—literature for the place I’m traveling to—I am often choosing to read books that I might otherwise not even open. Such is the case with Cabbages and Kings, O. Henry’s novel-length collection of inter-related stories written when he was on the lam from Texas, charged with embezzlement while working as a bank teller. The last time I read O. Henry was in junior high–his popular end-twisting tales such as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

Cabbages and Kings (1896) offers a look at Honduras—under the guise of the title Anchuria—as a banana republic, a term coined by Henry (which is the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910). It is often laugh out loud funny, and the satire is cutting. The author apparently holed up in Trujillo, on the coast, while avoiding the authorities, and the town becomes the fictional Coralio. The stories truly do include “shoes and ships and sealing wax” as noted in “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” the allusion in the title. The story on “shoes” is very funny as, of course, the residents—with the exception of the expatriates—don’t wear shoes. How does the young consul convince the local people to purchase the large inventory of shoes that his intended father-in-law has brought with him to set up a store? Rather than “kings,” it’s presidents as the government of a banana republic turns over rather frequently. Graft is a recurrent theme. One of the laudable stories concerns the creation of a national navy, outfitted with a sloop taken by the Customs office and staffed by an “Admiral,” who is known as a half-wit on land but a keen sailor on the sea.

Henry calls the book a “patched comedy,” and that is an apt assessment. It opens with a President and his ladylove, an opera singer, trying to debunk the country with a goodly amount of the treasury in a valise. That story is not resolved fully until the “round up” at the end of the narrative when the author ties up lose ends. Henry uses high-toned language of the time that may seem archaic, but the narrative is still very accessible once one or two chapters have been read. The American consul—who is on the ground to protect, frankly, the business interests of such USA companies as Vesuvius Fruit—seems to rotate fairly frequently, and at least two of the appointments occur due to the young men being spurned romantically in the states. They wish to escape to the outer reaches, and they get their wish in appointments in Coralio. This is definitely a man’s world, where the guys sit around on the coolest porch available, drink, and share stories. There are women characters but definitely supporting cast only.

The stories sketched together actually give a decent depiction of Honduras in the late 19th century with a good deal of humor thrown in. The twist endings still occur in some of the tales as when two young men try to make their fortunes from the overwhelming vanity of the president du jour—one by painting his portrait, and the other by taking his picture with his Brownie camera. Consistently, Henry is a master of irony.

Henry’s experiences with government, people on the lam, and drink serve him well as these themes recur throughout the narratives. He quit Honduras to face the charges back home as his wife was dying of consumption (tuberculosis).  His daughter stayed with his wife’s parents during the three years that he was incarcerated in the Ohio penitentiary, yet again another fertile site for stories yet to come.  Cabbages and Kings is one of those unusual lost titles that I’m very glad I found for this trip to Honduras.

Tom Swift Goes to Honduras

Admittedly, a “boys’ book” written in 1917 might seem an odd choice for a Road Works trip to Honduras, but as I teach a course in adolescent literature and begin by reviewing the juvenile literature that was available in the days before Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier, it was an opportunity to try out the series, said to be second only to The Bible in popularity. (Although one wonders if those responses were really truthful. Really? An adventure series or the Bible? Which one will truly win out for the adolescent male in the early 20th century?)

Thus, it was that I downloaded Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders or the Underground Search for the Idol of Gold (1917) to my Kindle Fire—for free. (It is also available through Project Gutenberg.) The Tom Swift series is one of several published by the Edward Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, which is also the origin of the Nancy Drew series. As with Carolyn Keene, the “author” of the girl sleuth stories, Victor Appleton–the author of the Swift novels–is actually a composite name for a group of writers who came together to pen the popular series, which grew to 100 volumes in multiple series even up to the late 20th century.  Another convention of such series is that the adolescent is often shy one parent or two; as with Nancy Drew, whose trusted housekeeper Hannah Gruen stands in for Nancy’s mother, Mrs. Baggert is the housekeeper who fills the void for Tom’s mother.

Tom Swift is a young man—a teen in the first of the series—who has native intelligence and a knack for inventions. In fact, his creations are thought to have inspired real applications and also inspired science fiction as a genre. Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle—which figures prominently in the Land of Wonders (and which is set largely in Honduras although it begins in his hometown in Shopton, New York), is thought to be the origin of the modern-day TASER. One other cultural artifact: “Swifties” are a kind of language play that features an often comic commentary on the content of dialogue. For instance, Tom says to his chum Ned, his financial manager, “To sum, it up for you—notice that I use the word ‘sum,’ which is very appropriate for a bank—the professor has got on the track f another lost or hidden city.”

As is in common in a series such as this, the author reviews the titles that have come before in a summary section of the novel, setting up the next adventure for Tom and his companions. Professor Bumper appears in this novel, as he did in the previous one in which Tom journeyed to Peru to help in a “Big Tunnel” dig. In the Honduras-bound plot, Professor Bumper wants Tom’s assistance on a trip to Copan, Honduras to uncover a lost city—and an idol made of gold. (We’ll overlook the fact that a Mayan idol in this area would more likely have been made of jade, as gold was located in Andean civilizations.) Initially enthusiastic although reluctant to travel as he is helping the World War I effort by developing a stabilizer for airplanes, Tom changes his tune when he learns that Professor Bumper’s rival, Professor Beecher, is wooing his girlfriend Mary Nestor.

The archaeological team hops a freighter bound for Honduras, hoping to beat the Beecher party to the site. Once in Honduras, the Bumper-Swift party fall prey to an agent—Val Jacinto–who gets them in country via canoe but leaves them stranded in the wild, apparently as part of Beecher’s counterplot to arrive at the site first. In the jungle, the guys battle wild beasts—including vampire bats, swarms of mosquitoes, bear, jaguar—but are generally successful, often as they have behaved nicely to the natives. Eventually, they arrive at their “dig” site and pitch camp. The Beecher party is not far behind, and the two rival groups have a standoff, deciding to leave one another to their own devices. Fortunately, true excavation of the site is limited as a convenient cave is located. An earthquake helps advance the plot and reveal the lost city. Who gets to the golden idol first? And who wins the hand of Mary Nestor?

Frankly, this novel was about as fantastical as the contemporary title, The Mayan Mask of Death that I reviewed earlier, and Tom Swift gave me some good chuckles, particularly with the comments of Wakefield Damon who does kind of a Batman and Robin shtick of “holy whatever” comments only in this format: “Bless my hat band” or Bless Bless my galvanic battery.” Ned is wont to say “for the love of rice-pudding, would you get down to brass tacks” or “Copan sounds like some new floor varnish.” There are anachronistic moments, particularly in the treatment of Tom’s black companion Eradicate “Rad” Sampson and Kuko, a “giant” who returned to the USA with Tom from Peru. While these scenes mar the story, they do give witness to the racist nature of popular literature of the time.

Tom Swift also has an educational feature as the novel includes facts, history, and geography about where the boys travel, revealing quite a bit about Honduras, much as Selma Lagerlof did in the Wonderful Adventures of Nils during about the same time period, which helped Swedish children understand geography through a charming story. I’m not sorry that I took an adventure back in time with Tom Swift for this journey to Honduras.

Mayan Mystery for Copan Travels

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Ball Court at Copan

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Temple Replicated in Museum

A Mayan Mystery

For our travels to Honduras, specifically to Copan, an apt site to visit in 2012 when the Mayan Calendar indicates for some that this may be the final year (do we recall the panic of Y2K?), it was somewhat difficult to find novels set in the locale. I passed over Wendy Murray’s The Warrior King and settled on Mayan Mask of Death, authored by a pair of sisters from Kansas, Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson (2011). The duo has authored 30 some novels, according to their biographical information; however, this novel is in the burgeoning field of e-books, published by Solstice, which launched three years ago to take advantage of the quick manuscript to Kindle/I-Pad/Tablet market. A side note: one would hope that these companies might invest in an editor. It’s rather distracting when a novel set at “Chicago University” misuses punctuation and contains typos. In a nutshell, the novel is set primarily at an anthropology department, where Dr. Arla Vaughn is acting department head. Although an exhibit featuring Mayan artifacts—particularly a fascinating jade mask from the tomb of “Smoke Jaguar”—is on the cusp of opening, it appears that the department may have bought a clever forgery. The opening is occurring three years after the tragic death of a department professor, archaeologist Rachel who had returned from the Copan site, only to become the victim of the “Scarlet Strangler.” Her husband, Jordan Lund, tormented by the failure to find her killer, continues the hunt—on a reality TV show in order to “Right the Wrong.” But he is also a prime suspect. In fact, suspects abound with almost every member of the department faculty and staff considered guilty in one way or another. The strangler strikes again, first with Carly, a departmental secretary, and then yet another young woman. Is no one safe? And everyone seems to be suspect: the mild-mannered professor who was Arla’s mentor; the colleague who oversees the exhibit but whose curator purchased the mask and who seems to be having an affair with a faculty wife; the stalwart stuck-at-middle-management Martin. Although Professor Vaughn has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, she naturally (for a mystery plot) lacks common sense and has an unfortunate tendency to blurt out important details of the story even when she knows that the murderer must be one of the people at a dinner party. Only in the last third of the novel does the setting actually advance to the ruins at Copan, and the authors do a nice job of describing the scene of the hieroglyphic stairs, the ubiquitous ball

Mayan God from Copan

court, the acropolis. Naturally, Arla finds yet another body in the undergrowth as she’s signaled much too widely that she’s bound for Honduras to follow up on a lead. Perhaps a better investment for reading might have been the classic Popul Vuh, the sacred book

of Mayan high civilization.