In 1845 London, an engineer, philosopher, philanthropist, and bold-faced charlatan, John Adolphus Etzler, has invented machines “powered by the immense forces of Mother Nature” that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.
Among his recruits is a young boy (and the book’s narrator) named Willy. As TES begins its overseas voyage to Trinidad, Etzler recedes quickly to the backdrop, and Willy’s tale takes precedence—in particular his head-over-heels fall for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy’s laboring class. Speech also divides them, as Marguerite lacks vocal cords—she communicates with Willy in writing. As the voyage continues, and their love for one another strengthens, Willy and Marguerite prove themselves to be true socialists, their actions and adventures standing in stark contrast to Etzler’s disconnected theories.
When they arrive at Port of Spain, Willy must part from Marguerite and travel with the men of TES to build the society’s future home—in a remote swamp, only accessible by boat, called Chaguabarriga. Far from realizing their leader’s dreams of a tropical paradise, the pioneers never even get a chance to unpack their Satellite, Etzler’s “self-powered” machine that will mow down the rainforest and plant their first crops. Within weeks the majority of them are stricken with the “Black Vomit.” And now they’re trapped, without a boat to return to civilization . . .
Willy and his father—together with their helpmate, an African named John—make a last-ditch attempt to refurbish a schooner that has washed up. But before the ship can be launched Willy’s father contracts the dreaded disease, moving the story towards its heroic, tragic conclusion: Willy’s account of transporting his father out of the jungle on a makeshift stretcher carried by himself, John, and two Warrahoon Indians. For a day and a night they haul him over the mountains of the Northern Range, across the breadth of Trinidad, back to Port of Spain and his family, only to spend his final few hours with them. This epic trek also brings fifteen-year-old Willy to the most trying decision of his life—whether to return to England with Marguerite, or become the head of his family in their new home. Antoni’s tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humor, provides an unforgettable glimpse into nineteenth-century Trinidad & Tobago.
About the Author
ROBERT ANTONI is the author of the landmark novel Divina Trace, for which he received a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and an NEA grant. His other books include Blessed Is the Fruit, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, and Carnival. He was a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow (for his work on As Flies to Whatless Boys), and recently received the NALIS Lifetime Literary Award from the Trinidad & Tobago National Library. He now lives in Manhattan and teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School University.
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