I love to read and I love the Virgin Islands. Here are 10 of my favorite Virgin Islands books.
John L. Anderson
Rome: Mapes Monde, 1992
The Night of the Silent Drums is the story of the 1733 slave rebellion on St. John, told through the eyes of a Danish plantation doctor. It begins by describing the terrible drought that was gripping Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) in the summer of 1733, and it ends by describing the fate of those African slaves who bravely rebelled and controlled the island of St. John for some six months.
Although it is a fictionalized account, the book is widely regarded as factual and accurate in its depiction of events that took place in 1733 and 1734. The story was first published by Charles Scribner and Sons in 1975; a 1992 edition published by Mapes Monde is beautifully illustrated with rare West Indian hand drawings and prints. Try to get your hands on either edition. Available from major booksellers and in some U.S. Virgin Islands bookstores.
Bonus title: Children and adults will also enjoy My Name is Not Angelica by Scott O’Dell (New York: Yearling, 1989) which tells the story of the St. John slave uprising from the perspective of a teenage African girl.
Dunedin, Fla.: Chris Doyle Publishing, 1993
Nature-lovers should be sure to pack this light-weight read. It is an accessible reference guide to the types of animals and plants you will see on a Caribbean island. Divided by habitat, such as seashore, rainforest, farms, and front yards, the book allows you to identify iconic and everyday Caribbean wildlife. Illustrations and insightful descriptions add to the charm. Great for children and adults. Available from major booksellers.
Don’t Stop the Carnival
Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995
The Caribbean classic, this is the story an optimistic hotel manager who sets up shop on what is widely believed to be Water Island near St. Thomas in the 1960s. Nothing goes as planned, but there is plenty of laughter and entertainment. A fun, light-hearted beach read, though also reflective of racial and cultural biases which we have not fully overcome. Available from major booksellers and several local bookstores.
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2001
Originally published in 1978, these memoirs of writer Martha Gellhorn are an ode to traveling. She journeys to Russia, China, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the chapter relevant to the Virgin Islands, it is World War II and Gellhorn has been denied more substantial journalistic postings because she is a woman. So she sells the idea of sailing through the Caribbean, on the hunt for Nazi submarines. Gellhorn’s chapter on her Caribbean adventure, entitled “Messing About in Boats”, describes Road Town on a rainy day, sailing without wind, and the Baths on Virgin Gorda. Once you get through the Virgin Islands chapter, you’ll want to go ahead and read the whole book to find out more about this remarkable woman. Available from major U.S. booksellers.
A Small Place
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988
This is the best portrait of the peculiar history and culture of a small Caribbean island ever written. Although based on Kincaid’s native Antigua, the essay paints a true picture of the entire region. Kincaid describes the different realities of the native and tourist experiences in the Caribbean. Easy to read but hard to accept, this book will force you to look at these beautiful islands in a different way. Parts of the work were excerpted in the 2001 film Life and Debt, about Jamaica’s economic policies and their effect on everyday people. Available from major booksellers and some BVI bookstores.
Say it in Crucian
Christiansted, St. Croix: Antilles Press, 2008
I absolutely love this ode to Virgin Islands language. Robin Sterns writes with precision and respect about the words, cadence and grammar of Crucians in the way only an English teacher can. Buy the book from Stern’s website, www.cruciandictionary.com.
Just An Affair
Columbus, Missouri: Genesis Press, 2003
If you want a romance, this is the book for you. Written by a Tortola native and set in the BVI, this beach read has just enough twists and turns to keep you glued. In it, charter boat captain Caryl Walker falls for a smooth-talking music CEO, but loses her memory before she can tell her former lover to take a hike. Available from major booksellers and in BVI bookstores.
Robert Louis Stevenson
This classic of children’s adventure fiction is said to be based upon Norman Island. Regardless, it is a wonderful read for children or adults. The hero is young Jim Hawkins, and the star is Long John Silver, the quintessential pirate. Great for reading aloud or to one’s self, a real must for that vacation suitcase. Available from major booksellers.
Bonus title: Lovers of history and piracy should pick up the new title Treasure Island by John Amrhein, Jr. (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: New Maritima Press, 2012), a handsome hardbound tale that pulls aside the veil of history to reveal the proven facts of Norman Island’s pirate treasure. It’s a story that spans from Cuba, to North Carolina to the quiet shores of the BVI. (A few review of this book is forthcoming. Stay tuned!)
The Hanging of Arthur Hodge
This self-published title tells the story of a Caribbean anti-slavery milestone: the 1811 trial and hanging of planter Arthur Hodge in Road Town. It was the first time a white man in the West Indies had been convicted and hung for killing a slave. The trial was big news at the time: reporters from Europe and America came to witness the events that took place in a stuffy and uncomfortable courtroom. Thanks in part to these detailed reports, historian John Andrew could re-create the tale for today’s readers.
The story that unfolds is unsettling–Arthur Hodge was a cruel and sadistic slave-owner–but also deeply interesting, since it provides a window onto a world that is long forgotten, and difficult to discover any other way. Available from major online booksellers and in BVI bookstores.
Two on the Isle: A Memory of Marina Cay
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985
Robb White remembers three years spent living on Marina Cay in the British Virgin Islands in the late 1930s. The story was later turned into a movie starring Sidney Portier and John Cassevetes, shot in the islands. The narrative details things such as White’s experience with an uncooperative donkey, the couple’s visits to neighbors on Beef Island, local boat building, and a visit from White’s mother-in-law, who was not impressed by their primitive island home. Sadly, the book is out of print and only available at used and rare book stores. A copy is also found in the local reference section at the Road Town Public Library.