Panama Fever: Digging Down Gold Mountain
by W. B. Garvey
Published by: Jonkro Books, August 6, 2009
Novel; 320 pages.
Reviewer: Lydia M. Reid, BA, MLS
After reading W. B. Garvey’s home page we discover that what ignited his interest in writing this historically based novel was the revelation that his own grandfather had worked as a railroad engineer on the Panama Canal during its construction. Amongst his deceased father’s papers he discovered a treasure trove of historical information that would send him on a singular quest and would inspire him to write his first novel.
A relative of the legendary Jamaican pan-Africanist and revered national hero, Marcus Garvey, the author has noted that, in fact, it was the deplorable treatment of his countrymen from Jamaica and the West Indians in general in the construction of the Panama Canal that prompted Garvey to start UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association) and to energetically promote the Back-to-Africa movement. Some of the flavor of the treatment received by West Indians during this epic period is starkly apparent throughout the emotional setting of this story.
The novel Panama Fever: Digging Down Gold Mountain is really a story about friendship. It begins with the friendship of the two main characters, Thomas and Byron, two very young men, hardly past their adolescence, who make the seemingly reckless decision to find fame and fortune by leaving their Jamaican homes to go find work in Panama on the construction of the grand waterway then under the direction of the French Canal Company.
Against the consent and better judgment of both his parents, Thomas Judah, the son of a wealthy white merchant, displeases and worries his mother, the lovely and aristocratic mistress of Samuel Judah, through his headstrong determination to make his own way, free of his father’s money and influence to carve out his own destiny.
Byron, on the other hand, a boy fleeing from the circumstances of his impoverished life and vowing to repay his father’s debt, decides to take his chances in Panama. Wild rumors of whole mountains of gold had been circulating tantalizingly from amongst the thousands of West Indian workers in the “digs” making their way back home, luring especially the young men of Jamaica to risk their lives laboring on the far away and treacherous Isthmus of Panama.
The two young adventurers meet in Panama at a recruitment camp and, although as different in character as day and night, chance and circumstance and a horrifying earthquake the very first day of their arrival bring them together in an unlikely friendship.
What develops in the thirty action-packed chapters of this novel is a series of exploits and events that will keep the reader riveted to his seat. The novel takes you through earthquakes, mudslides, a revolution, plagues, and the burning and sacking of the City of Colon in rather quick succession. The writing style is rich and the backdrop lushly exotic as the wild, beautiful and very often hostile tropical setting of the Panama of the 1880’s is brought to life by W.B. Garvey’s skillful pen.
We are also, and very artfully so, introduced to the extremes of human nature and the depravity which the region of Panama of this era readily gave rise to. We meet the cruelest of work gang bosses, the most indifferent of French surveyors, the ever present treachery in the political class of the struggling “Departamento” of Panama which was still a Province of Colombia at the time, and the even rarer sense of loyalty between a Jamaican sailor-turned protector of a Colon Madame.
We are also treated to Thomas’ irresistible attraction to the young and charming, Genevieve, a Catholic novice who, like him, has much to discover about her own convictions. I was also particularly glad for the portrayal of Pedro Prestan a real life rebel and freedom fighter who has remained an enigmatic and often vilified figure in history- until now.
This novel will appeal to a very wide audience but is a must for students and lovers of history, particularly the history of Panama, America and Europe and its imperial past. We predict that it will become required reading for high school and college audiences. It is best read accompanied with a sense of adventure on the part of the reader to learn new words and phrases in English, Spanish, French and patois from Panama as well as the Caribbean. The author obviously knows his way around languages but he makes it a fun experience by giving his readers clues to the meanings without having to resort to dictionaries.
The fact that the story highlights the lives of two young Jamaican protagonists is a new twist to the many stories and non-fictional works about the Panama Canal that have cropped up recently. The real builders of the Panama Canal, the West Indians, and their experiences are made the focal point in this novel- for a change. Their sacrifices are duly given the spotlight.
This is definitely quality fiction at its best- a breath of fresh air in today’s absurd trend of the merchandizing of fictional junk. Why bother reading a story created from someone’s total fancy when the historical reality of this novel is so much more interesting?
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