“Paperman’s Island”–St. Croix, USVI

Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, one of the finest books to have come out of the West Indes, was inspired by life on the Virgin Islands. The book tells of the succession of disasters that befell a New York sophisticate turned hotel owner, Norman Paperman, around 1960. The hotel in question is reputed to have been modeled on the hotel on the Cay of Christiansted in St. Croix (called “Kinja” in the book). While a bit dated today, I recommend this book to anyone who wants insight into the way St. Croix functions.
St. Croix was the senior Island in Danish Colonial Days (which preceded US rule) because of its brilliantly successful sugar cane plantation economy. But this prosperous time only lasted about 50 years-until sugar cane was replaced by beet sugar at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, St. Croix and its many sugar plantations fell to disrepair and never recovered from the blow. Gradually, the island turned into a backwater and the poorhouse of the island group. While the other Virgin Islands have been overtaken by the hustle bustle of modern America, St. Croix has retained a quieter, more historical feel. Roughly twice the size of St. Thomas, it is far more sparsely populated, with varying scenery including mountains, rain forests, deserts and beaches. There is also a lot of land devoted to dairy and cattle breeding farms and finally, an enormous oil refinery.
It is reputed that Herman Wouk did not dare to return to St. Croix because his characterization of the island and its workings was so painfully accurate. You can hardly do better than this overview of the island which opens his book which I exerpt here in full:

“The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he is not much inclined to believe in it. This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existance is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun. The white people charging hopefully around the island these days in the noon glare, making deals, bulldozing airstrips, hammering up hotels, laying out marinas, opening new banks, nightclubs, and giftshops, are to him merely a passing plague. The have come before and gone before.
Long ago, they came in their white-winged ships, swarmed over the islands, slaughtered the innocent cannibals, chopped down magnificent groves of mahogany that had stood since the Flood, and planted sugar cane. Sugar was money then, and it grew only in warm places. Those were the days of the great stone plantation houses and sugar mills; of seasick slaves hauled in from Africa, the ancesters of the Kinjans; of wealthy land owners with pink cool wives back in England, and warm black concubines on the premises. Then the sugar beet, which can grow in the north, came in and black slavery went out. Bankruptcy and insurrection exploded along the island chain. The boom collapsed. The planters left. The plantation houses fell in. Today the natives put tin roofs over one nook or another in the massive broken walls and live there.
The West Indians do not know what will cause the frantic whites to leave next time. Perhaps a bad earthquake: the entire chain of drowned mountains rests on a shaky spot in the Earth’s crust. Or a tidal wave; or a very bad hurricane; or an outbreak of some dormant tropical disease; or the final accidental blow up of the white man’s grumbling cauldron in the North, which will send the Carribean white remnant scurrying to-where next? Tasmania? Tierra del Fuego? Unlike the natives, they cannot subsist if the ships and planes stop coming, on crayfish, mangos, coconuts, and iguanas.”

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