Book: Cane Warriors
Author: Alex Wheatle
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
‘Cane Warriors’ is a riveting tale of man’s ever failing attempt to cage the human spirit. Against the backdrop of the all -too- familiar cane piece of Jamaica are Alex Whealte’s characters – young and old; every character worn by human brutality. In this drama, girls are robbed of innocence and boys are force-ripened into men. In unforgiving heat, young bodies surrender and every youthful physique cave to the whips of evil. ‘Cane Warriors’ is tension-filled and heart-stopping, a work of edgy brilliance that brims with existential fervour. The days are long and grinding, never-ending, and inescapable.
“We finished our hard labour more than thirteen hours later. Every muscle in my back screamed. I couldn’t feel my arms and I believed my kneecaps were about to drop off. The sun had cooked my head-top and somebody could have made a hot drink with my sweat,” recounts Moa, the boy-man protagonist. Moa’s narration is loaded with exasperation, fatalism, and hope. He is courageous and trustworthy. His romanticism keeps him afloat. Oftentimes, he ruminates on the idyllic home of his forebears. He is expectant of the future and, for “de land at de other end of blue water,” he longs. “One day, me will have to tek me good foot and see…Mek me promise me-self dat before me good body return to de ground.”
Tears of loss flow on the plantation; human life a mere trifle. Moa bemoans the passing of a matriarch, an episode that ignites passions among the oppressed.
“Scallion Mon and me had to dig de hole and dem just fling her inside it. Dem would not allow us to bury her beside ah tree or de stream. Not one Akan song chant…We all loved her.”
And not even the bosom of white women could hold empathy.
“Your nun hear from mama about how master’s wife treat we people inna de big house?”
Of his travails, Moa recalls, “Life was hard as a boy-child. But now that I had nearly come to my full size, my life was going to get tough like an old tree root.”
Throughout, Wheatle captures the tragedy of enslavement, a tragedy that runs deep. The victimized carry a psychic wound far greater than the physical brutality they suffer. Their entrails are torn but must be concealed if only to guard the last ounce of human dignity. “Nuh let de white mon see de pain you carry inside,” encapsulates this mental imprisonment.
In these parts, “Everything is dangerous…Even living till de next day. Even sleeping.” But sometimes, an Akan song would soothe the heart.
Moa describes the violence unleashed on one of his colleagues, his words indelibly raw: “It was one of the worse whippings we had seen. His back showed ridges of hard dried blood.” He later adds, “[h]e had suffered more lashes than anybody. His back was crisscrossed with thick pinky-red scars under the recent blood…”
Predictably, violence begets violence. On seeing man’s inhumanity, Moa is moved by palpable rage. “Hate ripples through me… my fingers wanted to wreak revenge but I gripped the sides of my coarse pants instead.”
But hate runs the risk of turning on itself, gobbling everyone in sight, potentially turning blood relatives against each other.
Vexingly, the rape of innocence is ever present. Moa is fearful that his friend, eleven year- old Hamaya, will fall victim to the unimaginable. The inevitable, though, seems nigh at hand. “Dem will soon come for me, Moa,” the petrified girl bemoans. “Sometimes me hear de fussing and fighting and cussing from de white mon hut… Me nuh want dat, Moa.”
But wanton injustice eventually fans the desire to revolt. There is a ‘trishna’ for liberation worth every ounce of self-sacrifice. Moa confides in his reluctant father, a beaten man who lost his arm working the cane rollers. “Better me dead fighting than dead from working for de white mon,” he says defiantly. Easter Sunday is D-Day, the day to throw off the yolk of slavery. “It soon time, Moa.”
Wheatle deftly draws us into a vortex of suspense.
Every insurrection, though, is a test on the conscience. But Moa is no natural born killer and must wrestle with his soul. He emerges resolute, managing to reconcile every warring feeling. “Me cyan run as far as me need to and me cyan kill a White man,” he tells one of the architects of the impending mayhem.
And the killing must be exact and vengeful, meant to deliver maximum pain. “I imagined plunging my billhook into Misser Master’s chest,” mused Moa.
Every member of the Big House must die, no one spared. He is consumed by the thought but steels himself.
“Just keep de shaky-shaky inside of you belly,” he is warned.
Moa braves his fear and delivers the coup de grace in the first of many battles. The scene is graphic, delivering an unmistakable message of slavery’s twisted foundation. The overseer is slain, collapsing to the floor, as did his bible. Amid the bloodletting, we see the redemptive value of ‘Cane Warriors.’ Moa, like every revolutionary, acknowledges the ubiquity of the Akan gods and the blood of the ancestors. In these warriors is an inexorable sense of filial piety. In a harsh, distant land, the gods spur the will to meaning as the climactic clash begins with inconceivable freneticism – “musket against musket, [s]harp steel carve muscle and split bones. Wood crash against jaw.” The revolutionaries are “sons of the land of Akan; sons of de sky god Nyame and Him woman Asase Ya.”
In the gods there’s solace and strength. But the unpredictable shadows us, and this decisive battle will soon test the faith of young Moa.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
Feedback: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby/www.glenvilleashby.com
Cane Warriors – A Novel by Alex Wheatle
Copyright 2020 Alex Wheatle
Publisher: Akashic Book, New York
Available: October 20, 2020
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