McKay was a Jamaican, born in 1890, who emigrated to the US as a young man, and eventually became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 30's. Though he lived in Harlem for several years, during much of the Renaissance itself, he lived in Europe and North Africa. His most famous novel, Home to Harlem, and its follow-up, Banjo, take place in the urban centres of New York and Marseilles, respectivel. Banana Bottom, the final of his three novels, published in 1933, is set in his native Jamaica, which he left at age 15, never to see again. And it reads almost as a love story to the island.
Banana Bottom tells the story of Bita Plant,a young, black girl, who after being seduced and ‘spoiled’, is adopted by white missionaries and sent to England for 7 years of refinement and a proper education. The novel begins with Bita’s return to her homeland. She is now perceived as belonging to a different social order, unfit for the simple life and the simple company she once enjoyed, and destined to serve as an example of the better life that western civilization offers.
Over the course of the novel, Bita interacts with representatives of every stratum of rural and small town Jamaican society, and ultimately rejects the narrow, hierarchical values of the elites, as well as the hedonism and ostentatious ways of the native pleasure seekers. Among all the suitors vying for her hand, she chooses the simple, earthy drayman, Jubban, who works for her father. There’s lots of examination of values, of one’s place and duty in community, and the challenges of simple desire – how to regard it and what to do with it. And Bita, though surely she’s a thinker, confronts her challenges with a combination of thoughtful analysis, intuition, and the movement of her heart and spirit.
So, it’s a book with a clear message and set of values to put across, but it does so with humor and naturalness. And its rich and multi-faceted examination of the social, cultural, racial and religious forces at work in the world it describes is gentle but deep, thought-provoking and life-affirming. The characters mostly fit the stereotypes of the time and place, but they think, feel and breathe, and so come to life – even those whose values and outlook can be easily rejected.
Often in reading historical fiction, I find it impossible to understand the actions and motivations of the characters. I love Dostoyevsky, but I often simply don’t get the passion that drives his characters in particular situations. I guess part of what makes Banana Bottom work so well for me, is that McKay isn’t afraid to tell as well as show, which is something that almost all instruction on fiction writing advises one not to do. Mckay makes it work, though. Throughout his novel, he shares bits of history, social custom and religious practice, and he breaks down the biases and psychological needs that inform his characters. And it all makes for a rich and moving portrait of a world that is decades removed, but still relevant to now.