Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Humming Bird Tree


Welcome Google visitor. These are not notes for the CSEC exams, but reading others' response to the text and sharing your thoughts is likely to help you in your preparations for the exams. Enjoy.


In the novel The Humming Bird Tree, Ian McDonald affirms what a special period of our lives childhood is. Our love is unconditional. Our trust is complete. Our laughter is unbridled. Everything is simple. Then we grow up.


In the case of young (Master) Alan, idyllic Trinidad is his playground; the rivers tossing over the white rocks, the cool scent of the bamboo trees, the moon over the citrus trees form a backdrop to his adventures.


Kaiser, with his treasury of knowledge and skills, his fearlessness, his manliness, his invincibility, is Alan's hero. Similarly his love for Jaillin is unfettered by any inkling that a bi-racial relationship comes with certain... er... difficulties, especially in pre-independence Trinidad. He knows he must see her often, he knows he blushes at the thought of kissing her, he knows he is thrilled when she looks at him, he knows he must marry her when they grow up. And that's all there is to it.


But 'reason' begins to take hold and his Indian friends begin to appear vulgar- didn't anyone teach them not to spit or pick their noses? And they are so superstitious! (Although it does seem inane to believe that the wafer clinging to the roof of his mouth is the body of Christ).


And so time passes and Master Alan loses his virginity. The beauty of the land blurs and the trappings of his upperclass life come into sharp focus. Crab hunting gives way -at his parents insistence- to afternoons at the tennis club and soon Master Alan is about to go off to Cambridge to study History (something Kaiser, now a store clerk, cannot understand, why would anyone study History?) Much to his parents' relief, Master Alan now knows what is what and he accepts his superior lot in life.


But deep down he is not happy. Like the marbleus butterfly, Jaillin has eluded him; he can never love like that again, but being with her is just not that simple. The poverty that was always around him seem starker, more troubling. Trinidad is on the brink of change and the significance of this is not lost on him. An uneaseines, an awareness that he has betrayed a trust, that he has betrayed his true self, by taking the path of least resistance, rests on his mind. It will be like going through life with a mango strawn caught between his teeth.


The Humming Bird Tree is pleasure to read. The graphic descriptions took me right into the heart of Trinidad. The cockfight and the carnival scenes could not have been more vivid if I had been there myself.


One particularly engaging aspect of the novel is how the folk wisdom connects with the collective body of understanding. For instance, Old Boss says "people never know what is what wid each other". This is exactly what Roth explores in The Human Stain, as I wrote in this post, we can come only this close to understanding ourselves, let alone each other.


Funny, the two novels connect in other ways; There is the contention between the individual and the forces that mold him. The contention between the individual and the society. What are the consequences of, what are the challenges of constructing your identity outside of your upbringing, outside of what you are fed by the media, outside of the whole system of beliefs you were baptised into at birth?


This novel is on the CXC (Caribbean Examination Council) reading list for English Literature. It has the 'f' word and other obscenities in it. The Minister of Education in Jamaica wants to have it removed from the syllabus here. Do you agree with him?
Edited (November 13, 2009): Since this page turns up so often to people studying the text, I've decided to help those people wanting to share their thoughts, or to benefit from the thoughts of others by posing a few questions. Please leave a response to even one of the questions. If you have a question, by all means, ask it. And by questions I do not mean "Please summarize the chapters for me". When you leave a comment check the box marked "email follow-up comments" that way you will receive all subsequent comments in your email. Thanks to everyone who shared their opinion about the issue of 'bad words' in the text.
1. Comment on the changes that Alan undergoes by the end of the novel. Which Alan do you like better, Alan the boy, or Alan the young man? Why?
2. Does Alan truly love Jaillin at the beginning? (In other words, is a boy capable of loving a girl the same way a man loves a woman, as McDonald suggests early in the text?) Does Alan still love her at the end? Give reasons for your opinion.
3. Is Alan's father less prejudiced against the Indians than his mother is? How would he fit into today's Caribbean?
4. Who is the real hero: Kaiser? Jaillin? Alan?
5. What is Alan's biggest loss?



39 comments:

Scripter said...

If the obscenity is an essential part of the novel, and if the story truly conveys a valuable lesson, I think that perhaps it would be a mistake to remove it from the reading list.

Daisy Soap Girl said...

I agree with Scripter that if the obscenity is essential to the story that it shouldn't be removed.
On the other hand, I believe that it should not be part of junior high or high school reading and should be kept for college level reading lists.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Scripter and Daisy,

I appreciate your visit and your comments.

The use of the obscenity is authentic; these are men at a bar talking about social and economic issues that concern them, here is an excerpt from the novel, providing one context in which obscenity is used:

" 'You say true, you say true. But you going see the town going choke up worse even. Whe'everybody going live? You see Shanty Town already down by Port of Spain people squeeze up worse than dog, worse than donkey. An' when the women going wit' the men what you think happen to them, eh? Answer me that brief, eh. What you think going happen wit' them so? You well know, I don' have to say, in a week time, in a mont' time, something so, they going sell their c--- to the nearest money. It mek you smell hell in you' nosehole.'

'Old Boss, you right. Dey c--- is the only thing dey have, you right.'

'That is it, man. Whe' they going' cook their food proper? You know how a woman like she cooking, how she like to hol' a coo-coo stick in she han' or mek up a pilao. She going finish wit' all that big cooking, no mo' four coalpot, oui, an' how she going walk jus' out o' door an' fin' callalloo bush ready so fo' she pot? No, man ... "(pp. 61-62).

Daisy Soap Girl said...

I still say that on a college level I see no problem with the book. I'm not sure if children would understand the social significants. If I had children I wouldn't want them to read the obscenity. I haven't read it but I think it may have been made into a movie. It sounds interesting and I would love to read it. Thanks for the review.

Louise said...

Don't you think there's more to it than the mere obscenity? The way the men are speaking about the women is fairly obscene in itself...

Jacqueline Smith said...

I was raised to believe that it is impolite to curse, hence the custom of saying 'pardon me' after using an expletive, whether accidentally or otherwise. I do use them myself when the occasion warrants it, like that time when a bus driver drove off when one of my feet was on the step and the other on the pavement.

The really ugly thing about some of them is that they are insulting to women. You don't want to know what some of our more popular 'badwords' like b---claat, r---claat mean in Jamaica. But as Geoffery said in a discussion at blog catalog, many of these misogynistic epithets had totally different meanings originally.

Now if I were asked to seclect books for the curriculum, I would reject those that contain curse words and find other works of equal literary merit that are more child friendly. Yes, child friendly. I do not want my sixteen year old students thinking it's ok to curse in my presence. Not that they do not already curse glibly along the corridors and elsewhere, but as it stands right now they understand not to do so in class or in my presence.

But since I am a teacher who did not get the priviledge of selecting the text, I think I will deal with my personal quirks and get to the real issues that the text begs us to pay attention to. Like, as you imply Louise, how obscene it is to denigrate anyone on the basis of their gender, race or creed.

Anonymous said...

I am apalled at the fact that some idiotic persons still believe that the expletives used in the book are wrong.I livde in Jamaica and expletives are used quite frequently here.let us not mince words when we say kids often tell these same words to their teachers.what is so wrong with exletives,we grow up hearing our parents with them,we hear them on the street so at one point we are going to start cursing.Not many people in Jamaica can go without using obseneties for a day.Besides these are award winning books that have been used over and over again again aftr reading these books childfen are no less respectful to their teachers.Look at the illiteracy rate in our country ,that is what Mr.Holness should be concentrating on instead of criticising award winning books.One member of J.L.P. administratin recently cursed some expletives at a police officer.Was it the Hummingbird Tree that taught him these words have to go.LOL

Anonymous said...

I am a student writing cxc and i have not problem with the obscenity in the book.

Anonymous said...

I am also a student writing CXC and in my opinion the obscenities in the book all play significant role in helping us to understand where Kaiser and Jaillin are from and the way they were raised. Its what makes them so different from Alan and the others in his world.

Whne reading the book aloud in class, we (the students) chose not to say them infront of our teacher, not in fear of what she would say/do but as an act of respect for her.

Yes, many of us do curse and I agree its impossible not to know what these words are when we grow up hearing others using them. Some may say its "inappropriate" for "children" but we are fifteen and sixteen year olds who may have been exposed to far worse than a few bad words.

Kami said...

As a form 5 student of the St.Vincent Girls' High School, I do not think that The Humming Bird tree should be removed from the list of literature books. My experience with the book has been quite an enjoyable one and it has taught me many things. The use of obscenities in the book is vital to emphasize on the difference of the behavior and practices of social classes in that time. Ian McDonald is a wonderful writer, and his characters in this book have inspired me in one way or another.

Anonymous said...

the children hear the obscene words all round them anyway, it really doesn't matter whether the curse words were in the book or not. so please, grow up everyone, there isn't anything wrong with a few curse words in the book!

Anonymous said...

ok i dont really think u fully understood thsi book there were some strange t hings in the summary anyway................... why should it be removed seeing that teens these days use th 'f' word more than anyone else i think the book shud stay cuz it will make it more interesting for them . my lit class has abt 10 ppl maybe more ppl will do lit wen they here d book ha cussin. anyways i doh read much but this book was worth reading woahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Anonymous said...

bte gud luck 2moro everyone

Mr. McFarlane said...

I am a student residing in Jamaica and also attending one of the leading academic institutions(Campion College). This book is a part of my cxc syllabus but releasing it from the cxc syllabus will do more harm than good.

On campus as i journey from the parking lot to class and from class to the canteen, i hear multiple outbursts of expletives for the smallest of things. While out on the road shopping i also hear these words and i am quite sure that most other students hear these words also unless they are kept locked up in their house.

Out of all the books on the cxc syllabus this book has had the greatest effect on me. First of all it was the first book that i had to read 4-5 times due to the great pleasure i gain from it.

As the the usage of the word c---(which means vagina) i only have to say that that is a clean word compared the words we hear on tv all the time. The f word is used around 3-4 times in the novel maybe less i remember it once. This is not a problem especially to the other youths in the Caribbean

Anonymous said...

LEAVE THE BOOK ALONE!!! There's a saying I know... "If it's not broken, don't fix it." This isn't broken, so leave it alone. Why don't you go stop high school children from having sex in the schools... Or even primary school children for that matter. A little obscenity never hurt anybody... But people do... Lemme explain... Students having sex in school (usually "quickies", and no condoms here) = Girl with a big belly who isn't obese = Unwanted child who usually has no good moral and financial support. In some cases the child starts to steal to help him with his wants. Later in life he gets even more greedier and he starts killing for it. I'm a Jamaican and I'm saying leave the book alone and start fighting against the real problems.

Shona said...

I dont think its right! I'm actually doing this book for Literature in school now. Its a beautiful book and I think its foolish to remove it because it has obscenity in it! Its a part of life every person curses and sex is also apart of life. Thye're forgetting that Its students of a mature age reading the book thus its not for small kids. So I believe it should remain

Anonymous said...

I have read the book this term in school and I wanted to know what other people thought. All people talk about here is the 'badwords' in the text-I understand that was the question asked to be answered-and the degrading of women through the little excerpt from the novel. If you look carefully at the review its not what the book is about.It has 3-4 badwords that people who turn a blind eye to everything in the book, critise. The words give meaning to the book and to the life the lower class lives. It gives the description of the way their mind and behaviour were shaped. The point of literature is to express and descibe the thoughts,feelings and attitude of people in writtings so people can relate or understand in the best way the author knows, the situation.
In the excerpt from the novel, they are not degrading the women cause believe it or not that's exactly what would happen if a poor couple move to a crowded city where even there money is hard to get. Women in those times and place liked to give time and effort in their cooking, unlike today,and in a city you don't have a liitle garden out back to grow food- unless your rich-. So the writer did express perfectly the conditions of the people but in the voice of one of his characters who are wise and down to earth.

As stated by another comment 'LEAVE THE BOOK ALONE'this book isn't a book for kids but for teenagers who are exactly what the main charaters are. This book is for the mature, which most teenagers are, and seriously if you don't want teenagers to read it, you have to understand the subject for which it was given 'Literature'. I explained it earlier but here is another part- If we, the not kids but teenagers, are not able to experience writings for its accurate desciptions because adults don't understand or degrade our senses, or don't trust us to know right from wrong we will never read and think outside of what they think is right for us and this indeed will do more harm than good. This in an award winning book that teaches sometining about lost of innocence and were written about things that happen to people like us so please don't keep us from learning a valuable truth.

Anonymous said...

I am recently doing the book in high school and I do not think it should be removed seeing as though it helps to juxtopose the languages and it is most definately not the first time my classmates and I have heard the word. The world is also significant as it helps us to understand the change of Alan's behaviour towards them as they mature.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is entitled to his own view.I did the Hummingbird Tree for CXC and I find it one of the more exciting novels. I live in a home where we don't curse or use expletives and that's what WE CHOOSE to do. However there are those who choose otherwise- there really isn't much that we can do to change that.

The use of expletives in this book is used to ILLUSTRATE the difference in society, culture and socialization. I'm not saying that I totally agree but let's face it... We live in a society here cursing has become the "Norm" and is sadly part of the culture. LEAVE THE BOOK ALONE!!! It's up to us (students)as individuals to set our own morals and standards.

Crime, Drugs, Sex, Alcohol, Disrespect, Cursing...you name it will always be there but does that mean that we will join in? We have choices.If someone is against the book that's their opinion. By reading the book that doesn't mean that the reader has to agree with everything.

HELLO!! we're students of literature. We can't pick and choose what books we want to study because they don't fall within the confines of our opinions and views..There would be lack of parallelism and perspective. As literature students we can however voice our opinions and justify them with sufficient evidence. I'm a form 6 Lit student ask me now and I can write essays both supporting and against this book...It's what I'm suppose to be able to do as a student of literature Isn't it?? Or am I only suppose to read and study the books that I agree with?? I hope that everyone commenting here read the book!!

Kswiss said...

I see the issue of expletives as a serious one but let us not forget that literature books with expletives have been apart of the school curriculum since Grade 9, for example, Crick-crack Monkey. I am not comfortable with hearing or saying expletives but I have also recognized that it is something I cannot avoid. However, I am sure that books exist with themes and moral lessons similar to that in "Humming Bird tree", nevertheless are without expletives. On the flip side, this is one of the few texts that my fellow classmates are interested in reading. We don't need to guess what the major reason is. Its occasional sexual innuendo/bawdiness and the story of a teenage love affair between individuals from "two different worlds" will attract most teens (note:most and not all). It's on this year's syllabus so I guess for us hopefuls that wish for children to be more disciplined and respectful, even if its only in the classroom, see nothing but doom for such a desire.

kswiss said...

These opinions only goes to show that society has gone to the dogs. The moral standards have depleted and everything that was taught to be removed from the lips have become the norm. No wonder my fellow teenages have adapted some dirty habits, to believe that it's "ok" to do this and that if I can do this and that in front of someone in authority and not be reprimanded. Not everyone is able to differentiate between when something is outright acceptable and when something can be occasionally excused. And then we question why are they so indisciplined and disrespectful!

Anonymous said...

i read the book. and yes the curse words are essential to the book. it's raw english but it shows the lack of education in Alan's Indian friends.... and the story does convey a valuable lesson...its about race and prejudice, love and heroism...

Sunnyloves22 said...

i want the summary for these for each chapter can i plz get it!!! plz i need it for my 3rd form exam which is next week

Anonymous said...

I'm 15, in Jamaica, 5th form and we are currently doing this novel at my high school as part of the CXC curriculum. My school's catholic so at first the novel caused a problem, if not a major one with the principal of course, worse she's a nun. However my current Englsih teacher vouched for the novel to stay in the curriculum reason being that the obscenity is avital aspect to the novel. In the novel, there's segregation: Indians and Whites. As such there's many comparisons to be made on both lifestyles of the main characters. The prominent use of oscenity by one race higlights a major difference between the two characters: the white boy and the indiand boy. If writing a essay on this novel, a question on difference in social status and its influences will come about. Obscentiy is a major element in that. As students we have to observe the difference not just economically or religiously but sociallly as well. We have to study the dialect of both characters and such to ascertain ehy it is that a 'invisible segregating line' is there to separate the boys friendship from thriving. what I'm trying to say is that we are not taught to believe that obscenity is right but we are beign taught to identify diffrent social grounds in novels and relate it to reasoning. And more over if parents are worried about their children being 'rude' teach them from an ealry age what is right. maturity goes a long way andt your child should know how to comprehend things and accept but know when to use ot from his/ her own mouths.

Anonymous said...

i agree with the Scripter where as if the obscenity is essential to the story therefore it shouldn't be removed.

Anonymous said...

As a Christian high school student, I strongly believe that the use of bad words and obscenties in the novel are very inappropriate.The difference and contrast of "Culture" in the novel could have been expressed and vividly seen without the use of these bad words. When it is accepted for children to read these out in class, it is like showing the children that it is ok to say bad words, and to do other things. You might say that they are already doing it, but having children and 'learning' these obscenities in school will not let them desist from it, but will only let the problem get. worse. I am sure that if any parent or teacher heard a student cursing otherwise, they would say that it is a shameful thing. If you saw public figures like the prime minister saying obscenities, wouldn't it be of concern? Surely one's culture cannot only consist of obscenities! I applaud the Jamaican ministry of education for this step in the right direction (sadly it will not take effect before I sit my exams), and I believe that anyone who is concerned about shaping our children's thoughts to become peaceful and good citizens will share my view.

DJ said...

I am a student living in Jamaica. I'm currently in grade 10 and so...I'm using this book. I think the level of maturity of those reading this is at a sufficient level that the dialect/ language should not be an issue. The use of the explicits actually shows the contrast of the protogonist and his friends... It makes the characters appear more genuine

NB: This is my opinion.

Anonymous said...

i dont think that they should not use the book. i strongly agree that the curse words are essencial and that is nothing new to a high school or college student, they are mature enough to handle reading a book of this sort. these words are there to emphasiza and illustrate a certain part of events in the novel.

Personally, I read the book and i think it is a very good book.

Anonymous said...

I am a form 5 student. I believe the ministry expects us to be mature enough to look pass the obscenities and see why they are appropriate in the novel, if we act childish just because we are exposed to this sort of language in class, then we probably should not even be at this level of education yet. We all know we use these profanities at any other time, why should we get excited just because they are included in one of our literature books?

lolz said...

amm i need help...exams is wednesday an i neva read dis book...or merchant ah venice...if anyone cud sum it up for me neatly n nicely i would greatly appreciate it...muchas gracias

latyC. said...

i would say that alan's biggest loss is his impartiality associated with being a child. As you mature,the strains and struggles of reality become evident and the world is nothing like it was before

Anonymous said...

Well, i ave lit exam 2morrow and this book is one of my favorite. it shows how difficult life was back then and how hard fitting in with people of different class was. the obscenitiy in the book does no harm and it shud remain on the syllabus.

Alathea said...

I don't think there is any thing wrong with the novel. As a fifth form student i hear and use 'bad words' quite often. After reading this book and understanding that this is the best way for Kaiser to express himself, then a student would not want to fall in that category and only depend on Expletives to carry them through.I think removing the book will really do more harm than good as life lessons can be learnt from it. The more you sheild a child from something its the more they gravitate to it without even knowing because of their inexperience.

Anonymous said...

I dont mind the 'bad words' its apart of our west indian culture. plus its a phase that i know that every child-adolecent experienced and you guys shouldn't tell lies you have done these things during your childhood. i think when mr mcdonald was writing this book, he thought the characyer kaiser of his bravery and fearlessness, so the expletives brings this out also the expletives help in the area of expression.

Anonymous said...

as a literate student myself studying the prose i DON'T think that it should be removed from the syllabus. as students of literature we are thought to be tolerant of ALL pieces of literature why then should be be denied such an opportunity? I that we are at a point in our develop where it is crucial that we are exposed to as much pieces of work as is possible so that we are able to draw worthwhile conclusions

Anonymous said...

What some parents/ teachers fail to understand is the fact that children are much smart and a lot more aware than parents/teavhers consider children to be. Children know that cursing is wrong and whether they read it in a book or not they are aware of the word. Weather you believe it or not! I personally do not understand how parents can say that the obcenity within the book will let their children feel free to use the word in public. These are not kingergarden children we are talkin about! They kno right from wrong!.. So a book which i have read which have a few obscenity is nothing that they should worry about. Look at the other essence of the book.. the book is not just made up of foul languages. Wow people really kno how to make mountains out of molehills!

Anonymous said...

teacher
The book is written to a Caribbean backdrop and the language of the Caribbean contain expletives. If the book is being used as a literature tool should not there be a discourse among students on the use of language. Stop trying to sweep issues under the carpet and let the children explore their opinions on the issues addressed in the text than what adults consider to be inappropriate language for them. The children already knows the language in question and are using it. Literature lends itself to development of morals, values and making judgements. The use of the expletive is a good tool to establish those morals and values. After all aren't we trying to develop analytical thinkers.

Angie said...

teacher
The book is written to a Caribbean backdrop and the language of the Caribbean contain expletives. If the book is being used as a literature tool should not there be a discourse among students on the use of language. Stop trying to sweep issues under the carpet and let the children explore their opinions on the issues addressed in the text than what adults consider to be inappropriate language for them. The children already knows the language in question and are using it. Literature lends itself to development of morals, values and making judgements. The use of the expletive is a good tool to establish those morals and values. After all aren't we trying to develop analytical thinkers.

DAN said...

it is quite obvious to say that the use of obscenities and expletives compliment the description of the characters in the novel it helps us, the students to get a better grasp on the character's background .... it also plays a vital role in expressing the social bored between jailin and kaiser as compared to allan. and it adds to the power of the expression that they are vulgar. the reason the expletives was used is because it is already so widely used in trinidad it is more a custom than an obscenity....i too am a student writing cxc in a few days an do not think the expletives are an issue or problem that the book should be remmoved fro the list