In a flashback, Hortense describes her childhood. Her father, Lovell Roberts, is a “government man,” well-known and almost worshipped in her town, Savannah-La-Mar, long after he’d left. Her mother, a “country girl” named Alberta, gave birth to her out of wedlock. Hortense remembers her mother’s smell and her favorite endearment, “me sprigadee,” but not much more. Hortense is light-skinned like her father, and Alberta knows that “with such a countenance” she has a chance at “a golden life,” instead of growing up poor and uneducated like her mother. In hopes of a better future, Alberta gives her daughter to Lovell’s wealthy cousins.
Even though Hortense’s skin, and the social expectations that come with it, separate her from her mother at a young age, for much of the novel Hortense won’t question this arrangement, and will consider herself entitled to certain advantages because of the way she looks. This shows both how much Britain’s colonial rule affects the mindsets of ordinary Jamaicans, and how racism can operate even in a society composed almost entirely of people of color.
Philip Roberts is Lovell’s cousin, a wealthy man who controls all the district’s produce. Because of his wealth, he’s respected throughout the neighborhood as an adjudicator of disputes. His wife, Martha, is known for her unusually light grey eyes. Hortense is told to call her Miss Ma. The couple have one son, Michael, to whom they are devoted.
Hortense’s uncle has prestige, but it stems from his money, rather than a meritorious character. Moreover, the appellation “Miss Ma” shows how stiff Hortense’s relationship is with her surrogate family; it’s a notable contrast to her mother’s intimate endearments for her.
Alberta’s mother, Miss Jewel, takes the young Hortense to her cousins’ house. Alberta agrees to move to Cuba, while Miss Jewel stays to work as a servant in the Roberts’ house. For all Hortense’s childhood, her grandmother takes care of her like a nurse, calling her Miss Hortense when other people are around and “me sprigadee” when they are alone.
Even though Hortense is taught to disregard her grandmother by treating her like a servant, Miss Jewel is the only person who displays familial affection for the little girl. Here, the novel creates a dichotomy between relationships based on social status—like Hortense’s with her cousins—and those based on love.
As a young girl, Hortense sits quietly in the henhouse and watches the hens lay eggs. Michael comes to find her, and Hortense is frustrated, since Michael always disrupts the hens in order to see them run around in fright. Hortense carefully carries a new egg in the house, but Miss Ma gives the credit to Michael and thanks him, while scolding Hortense to stay out of the henhouse. Hortense says that Michael is always getting her into trouble. He likes to have her as an accomplice when he climbs trees or goes wading in the stream, but Mr. Philip always says it’s “not godly” for little girls to do these things.
It’s clear that Hortense plays a secondary role in her family. She’s an object of criticism rather than affection for both Miss Ma and Mr. Philip, rather than someone who belongs among them. While Michael is sometimes her friend, he clearly doesn’t try to defend her from them. Hortense’s skin buys her a slightly better position in society, but it also steals from her the security of loving parents.
Every time the family sits down for a meal, Mr. Philip conducts a long prayer, which often turns into a sermon on his own strict religious beliefs. While they eat, Miss Ma lectures the children on proper table manners.
The Philips’ family life revolves completely around the fulfillment of conventional mores. Hortense’s strict upbringing in this environment informs her adult obsession with manners and propriety.
Eventually, Michael leaves home to attend boarding school. While Mr. Philip chides Michael about remembering his religious principles, Hortense pinches herself so as not to cry. Michael brags that he’s going to learn about “the whole world,” while Hortense stays at the ordinary day school singing “silly rhymes.”
Even though Michael is rude and arrogant, Hortense is sad to see him go. Her reaction shows how truly starved the little girl is for affection and friendship. It also shows that despite her place in a “good” family, her opportunities for education and advancement are limited by her gender.
After Michael leaves, Hortense spends more time with Miss Jewel, helping her with the chores. Miss Jewel has a habit of singing while she works, replacing the words of hymns with her own lyrics. Hortense says that instead of “Mr. Roberts wash him sock at night,” she should sing, “While shepherds watch their flock by night.” Miss Jewel doesn’t know what a shepherd is, and when Hortense explains, Miss Jewel counters that there are no shepherds and no sheep in Jamaica. Hortense explains that the song is about England, where there are many sheep and where Jesus was born. Hortense tries to teach her grandmother poems about England that she’s memorized at school, but while her grandmother is eager to learn, she continues to replace the words with her own.
Hortense’s relationship with her grandmother helps illuminate the dynamic between an imperial power and its colonial subjects. While all Jamaicans have to learn English songs, Miss Jewel’s disregard for the lyrics shows how irrelevant to her real life these bits of British culture really are. However, Miss Jewel never explicitly realizes this; rather, both she and Hortense accept that the little girl should take on a pedagogical role in their relationship because she’s been educated in the colonial school system, even though Miss Jewel is much older and probably much wiser.
When Hortense turns fifteen, she finishes school and goes to work at a private school for children “from good families.” She enjoys helping the bright students and handing out books, which smell new and fresh unlike the used books at her government school. Hortense’s school is run by two American missionaries, Stella and Charles Ryder, who tell her that they are there to help the “poor negro children.” Hortense wonders if they’re aware that their school caters only to the richest and fairest children in the districts.
Hortense likes teaching, but only when her work is organized and her students are obedient—this reluctance to embrace disorder will be a problem later on, both personally and professionally. Moreover, the Ryders’ obliviousness to their students’ backgrounds shows both that colonial “aid” isn’t effective at reaching people in need, and that their ingrained racism prevents them from understanding any of Jamaica’s social nuances.
Hortense is fascinated by Mrs. Ryder, the “whitest woman [she] had ever seen.” Everyone in the district gossips about the Ryders, both because Mrs. Ryder is unusually independent and likes to drive herself around, and because Mr. Ryder is known to conduct dalliances with local women and has perhaps fathered illegitimate children.
While the Ryders are missionaries, their behavior is far from spotless. In particular, Mr. Ryder displays the same irresponsible greediness as imperial powers that seek to dominate their colonies, rather than any kind of religious compassion.
While Hortense is working at the Ryders’ school, Michael returns home. Mrs. Ryder gives Hortense an old dress for the occasion, and she stays up for many nights mending it. When he arrives, Michael seems very different—he has a deep voice and stylish clothes, and he shakes his father’s hand like an equal. After dinner, Mr. Philip begins to read from the Bible as usual, but Michael interrupts him, saying that he’s learned that the earth moves around the Sun, contrary to the teachings of Genesis. Michael wants to discuss new concepts like this with his father, but Mr. Philip is enraged that his son dares to speak at the table and to contradict his ideas. He storms out of the room, followed by Miss Ma. For her part, Hortense decides she’s completely in love with Michael.
In the Roberts’ household, compulsive fidelity to good manners and propriety prevents the exchange of new ideas. Through the microcosm of the household, this episode shows that a focus on maintaining “civilized” customs prevents societies from embracing positive change. Moreover, the Roberts’ behavior stifles their personal relationship with their son—even though Hortense herself cares deeply about manners, her immediate worship of Michael shows that she instinctively recognizes this fact.
In the following days, Hortense analyzes Michael’s every action for evidence that he reciprocates her feelings. Eager to show off, Michael tells her to ask him about the League of Nations or the “Irish questions;” Hortense thinks that he wants to impress her, but she doesn’t know enough about these subjects to converse with him.
Michael is very well-educated, but he’s only using his knowledge to show off. Moreover, it’s important that all the things he learns in school are related to the British Empire; he’s largely ignorant as to affairs in Jamaica itself.
When Hortense returns to work a few days after Michael’s arrival, Michael escorts her to the schoolhouse. As it turns out, he’s already acquainted with Mrs. Ryder—she says they met at church, while he contends it was at the grocery store. Michael gets into the habit of walking Hortense to and from school, which she believes is a sign of his romantic interest in her.
Hortense’s certainty in Michael’s affection is undermined by his unexplained familiarity with Mrs. Ryder. As she is in this episode, Hortense is often unable to correctly analyze other people’s emotions and desires.
Some days later, a hurricane strikes the town. Hortense and Mrs. Ryder are alone in the school, preparing the building for the storm. Mrs. Ryder is excited, while Hortense is praying that the roof doesn’t collapse. Suddenly, Michael arrives at the school, soaked through from the rain. Hortense is touched that he’s come to be with her, but he runs past her to Mrs. Ryder’s side. Addressing her by her first name, Stella, Michael says that he came because he was worried for her safety. With the hurricane “crashing” around them, Mrs. Ryder is frightened and glad to have him there. As the night passes, Michael and Mrs. Ryder begin to hold hands, and Hortense realizes that Michael is love with her employer, not her. She’s desperate to escape the room, but she can’t leave because of the storm.
Hortense thinks that the hurricane will mark the inception of her hoped-for romance, but instead it catalyzes her disillusionment with Michael. The hurricane’s shift from exciting to frightening mirrors the shift in Hortense’s emotions, from hopeful to anxious to despairing. It’s also notable that Hortense is too focused on her own personal tragedy to note that the affair, as an interracial relationship, is deeply transgressive in her traditional community.
When the rain finally abates, Hortense runs out of the school, only to find Mr. Ryder’s car “wrapped around the base of a tree” by the road. Mr. Ryder is inside, dead. Distraught and confused, Hortense informs the gathering crowd that Michael and Mrs. Ryder are alone in the schoolhouse.
It’s unclear whether Hortense betrays Michael on purpose or because she’s too distressed to think properly. This isn’t the last time Hortense will say something damaging to a friend when she’s feeling hurt or under pressure.
By the time Hortense returns home, the entire town is gossiping about the incipient scandal. Miss Ma is in tears at the thought that Michael has been “committing a mortal sin” with a married woman; in her distress, she hits Hortense several times. Hortense runs to her old haunt, the henhouse, and squeezes in among the hens.
Even though Hortense isn’t responsible for Michael’s transgression, Miss Ma punishes her for it. The woman’s violent reaction mirrors (and probably magnifies) Hortense’s feelings of betrayal and inadequacy.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Mrs. Ryder leaves the island, while Hortense closes up the school. A local newspaper publishes an article suggesting that Michael may have murdered Mr. Ryder. When Hortense returns home three days later, Michael is gone. Miss Ma tells Hortense tersely that he’s gone to England to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). When Hortense shows her distress, Miss Ma reprimands her, but the young girl still can’t keep from weeping.
The forbidden affair alters the course of Michael’s life, robbing him of his place in the community and forcing him to join the army. It even seems like he’s lucky, since despite the newspaper articles, no one formally accuses him of murder. The intense reaction to the affair shows how destabilizing interracial romance is to a society that operates on racial prejudice.