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?