in 'From Rum to Roots'
"From Rum to Roots" is an excellent first novel by Lloyd G. Francis, a former photographer at The Mercury News in San Jose, where he and I both worked, some years ago.
We didn't know each other very well -- he was always running off to photograph a war or maybe some kittens in a tree or something, and I was a pain-in-the-ass cranky designer (and freelance writer). But I was always glad to see him and his wild dreads, because he was always ready to laugh, if at all possible, and always had a very positive, move-forward kind of way about him.
And he was a very good photographer.
"From Rum to Roots" is the story of Jamaicans -- their lives in Jamaica, and their lives after immigrating to the United States. It's a story very close to Francis, whose parents both were raised in Jamaica, although it is not their story.
But Francis grew up listening to stories about Jamaica from his folks, and has visited the island many times.
His knowledge and understanding of Jamaica and its people runs very deep, and it is a living reality in this fine novel, which first shows us all about Jamaica and its people -- the workers, the bums, the business people, the Obeah. And then the book takes us to the United States, where success is possible, but at a very high price.
"From Rum to Roots" is the story of Linton McMann, the bastard and publically unacknowledged son of a (mostly) white plantation owner. He grew up as best friends with Major Blaine's (mostly) white son, but the white son got to go away for real schooling and college, and Linton had to stay home and work in the cane fields.
Linton carries scars on his back from when a drunken Major explained to him what would happen if he ever told anybody about his true parentage. But, Major does give him a key to his personal library, so Linton can educate himself, if he will, and moves him ahead in learning the rum business.
The book begins in 1937, when Jamaica was moving in the direction of self-rule, and many economic and political forces were at work. Centuries of European colonial rule are about to end, and Major fails to do the right thing to survive as, in effect, co-equals with his black work force.
Linton breaks away, and for a while lives in the forest among Rastafarians, making roots tonic with his lover, Sheila.
Meanwhile, in Kingston, "The nun glared at the classroom full of teenage girls who sat like shiny black stones under her scrutiny. ...It was the longest day of the school year, the Friday before summer vacation. Daisy Wellstead sat at her desk, trying to endure."
Daisy has her own life to deal with -- she knows she is pretty and smart, and wants something great in her future. Haunted by a personal tragedy, she makes a disaster of her marriage. When the opportunity arises to escape to the United States, she does so, leaving her two daughters behind, in the care of her mother.
Linton's ganja-smoking life has also been disrupted, by different circumstances, also decides to try for a better life in the United States, despite the horrible stories he has heard about how black people are treated there.
Linton and Daisy meet in New York and begin a romance that will lead to family and new children. And, eventually, a very successful business, making and selling roots tonic.
I was very impressed by many things in this book, including the way Francis treats racism. When two American children of a Jamaican mother visit Jamaica, one is horrified by the open-air markets and the cows in the street. The other child doesn't mind those things at all, and loves being surrounded by other black people, instead of hostile whites. That is direct, yet still poetic. Very nicely done.
And he very feelingly deals with the conflict for parents between trying to succeed in life, and trying to be good to their children.
Daisy works hard in America, and always sends money and things back to her daughters in Jamaica. But she doesn't go there to hug them in her own arms till it's almost completely too late.
Meanwhile, Daisy and Linton are bringing up their two, American-born children, in financial comfort, and therein is another tale altogether, and one deftly told, with many deeply limned characterizations.
A fine novel.