Bookshelf (September/October 2007)

Beyond the Islands: An Autobiography is a colourful journey into the life of former St Vincent prime minister James Mitchell

  • Campaigning in St Vincent, 1984. Photograph courtesy Macmillan Caribbean

Beyond the Islands: An Autobiography

Sir James Mitchell
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1417-2, 463 pp)

For the best part of 30 years, Sir James Mitchell was the dominant political figure in St Vincent and the Grenadines. He was prime minister from 1984 to 2000, winning four consecutive elections; and, before independence, premier from 1972 to 1974. He won his first seat in parliament in 1966, and stayed there through eight more elections.

A survivor, then. And a pragmatist. Although he sometimes fumes at the “chauvinism” and “inanity” of island politics, he was no slouch himself when it came to political footwork, and his autobiography suggests that he got a lot of fun out of it. Much as he loves islands and boats and the sea, and his hotels, he obviously loved mixing with the mighty just as much. He seems to have had his best times at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, surrounded by royalty, presidents, prime ministers and sundry celebrities.

James “Son” Mitchell was born in 1931 in Bequia, one of the Grenadine islands that stretch southwards from St Vincent like the tail of a kite. His parents wanted a boy, so when the midwife called through the window “It’s a son!”, he was stuck with a lifelong nickname. His boat-building father disappeared mysteriously in the Bermuda Triangle when Son was only eight.

After training as an agronomist and soil scientist, Mitchell spent some time wandering around Europe, and came home convinced of three things which clearly drove his political thought. The scattered Caribbean islands would never get anywhere unless they united, as the European nations were starting to do. Socialism (which he had encountered hiking through Yugoslavia) was a waste of time. And the business of a politician was to make a difference in people’s lives.

Beyond the Islands focuses mainly on how he applied these ideas while he had the power: attracting investment, pushing Caribbean leaders towards unity, making an impact on international decision-making. He didn’t have much luck with the second of these goals. But St Vincent and the Grenadines owes him for his tenacity, and several other countries benefited from his instinct for mediation.

The autobiography doesn’t tell this story clearly. There are very few dates in it, and Mitchell skips back and forth wherever his memory leads him, so unless you already know the background you might wonder whether you’re in the Sixties or the Nineties. There’s little sense of shape, of highs and lows, tensions leading to resolutions; and there’s hardly any betrayal of deep feeling. Much of the book has the feel of a man on his verandah recalling past struggles and victories—victories especially, and treasured compliments—and savouring the stories and the good times of a life well lived.

It’s a shame that the many typos and puzzling sentences were not picked up before publication. But there are some vivid images here that help to sum up the man. The prime minister happily tending the bar at his Frangipani hotel, to the disbelief of visiting yachties. The prime minister phoning Buckingham Palace to offer moral support at times of royal distress.

Sir James (he was knighted in 1995) sees himself as a man of the “liberal centre-ground”. If he had gone to sea like his father, he remarks, St Vincent and the Grenadines would never have had “a liberal to lead them away from communism”. He took his home island of Bequia “from thatched huts to glossy pages in architectural magazines”. Which indeed is one measure of development.

Jeremy Taylor


Force Ripe

Ephraim Ramkissoon
(Benko Printing and Publishing Company, Penal, Trinidad, 132 pp)

Perhaps the best recommendation a book about growing up in the countryside can get is one from a cricketer who has experienced the joys of growing up in a small village. Trinidad and Tobago cricketer (and sometime West Indies captain) Daren Ganga says Ramkissoon’s novel Force Ripe “has done a great job of portraying rural life”.

Force Ripe is a story of survival and innocence in the face of the violence that has permeated the village of Lengua. When his friend is murdered, Daniel struggles to keep the good memories of growing up in the countryside. Slipping into nostalgia, he recalls the simplicity of village life where cricket games and bazaars were once the major events. Here in the village, everyone helps one another. Life is hard, but there is a joy in the simplicity of that austere life. Force Ripe captures the vanishing landscape of sugar cane fields and the disappearing rural lifestyle. It is the story of what friendship really means and how the loss of friendship affects us all.

Debbie Jacob


Mauby and the Hurricane

Peter Laurie
Illustrated by H. Ann Dodson
(Macmillan Caribbean ISBN 9781405077187, 55 pp)

Mauby the cat has a history of adventures, but Mauby has grown fat and lazy. Now, she’s content to play games chasing rats, and she’d rather relax and enjoy the farm where she lives than think about doing any real work.

The problem is, a hurricane is coming and Farmer Hunte and his wife are not on the farm. The other animals are relying on Mauby to organise them and keep them safe. After all, Mauby once rescued a calf on the farm. Afraid of heights and the dark, Mauby must put her own fears aside to help her animal friends.

There’s action galore in Mauby and the Hurricane as the animals face heavy rain, flooding and the destruction caused by the hurricane. This is a story of friendship and sticking together in times of trouble. Mauby proves that heroes can be everyday, ordinary people—or even animals—who put personal concerns aside and rise to the challenge.

Mauby and the Hurricane is the third book in the Mauby series by Peter Laurie. Barbadian artist H. Ann Dodson captures the scary storm with her illustrations. This hard-cover picture book is suitable for four- to eight-year-olds.