Fred D’Aguiar, author of fiction, poetry, and plays, imagines this interesting work, Children of Paradise (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014) in remembrance of the children who died in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. The book tells the story of the tragedy through two main characters, a child Trina and her mother Joyce, who live in the commune. In a disturbing fashion, “Father” uses Trina as an example of his healing powers and seeks to keep her mother as his “own” and away from a local boat captain of whom she is quite fond. Trina and Joyce plot a daring yet poised escape from the jungle, with aid from a gorilla named Adam who also inhabits the territory.
The author’s use of the gorilla in the story development is both humorous and sophisticated. D’Aguiar does a terrific job of verbalizing the gorilla’s mindset about his life in captivity. I even made connections between Adam’s character and possible feelings of actual Jonestown residents. Adam feels trapped in a cage, much like the book’s communal members, and feels the only way to have comfort in his life is to please “Father,” even though his master makes him uncomfortable at times. In a third and abstract way, the author shows that Adam sees the children as the future of the jungle community and imagines himself as “child-like,” wanting to be reunited with his mother and other members of his family.
At first, I questioned the author’s constant references to and use of the character of Adam. As the story continued, though, I better understood why he is essential to the text and outcome of the story.
Fred D’Aguiar lived much of his boyhood in Guyana and vividly creates heightened drama by chronicling another child’s experience in the jungle. Ryan has been caught stealing bread for his friends and is facing punishment by “Father.” His experience and survival in the jungle is described as if the author was forced to do the same. I sensed that D’Aguiar was terrified of beasts in the Guyanese infrastructure, as I would be. I developed a sense urgency for Ryan to return to the commune, not only to be free of panthers or snakes, but to his playground that he shared with Trina, Rose, and the other children there.
Although the story is not realistic fiction, the author uses many truthful scenarios in the story. Examples would include: descriptions of the communal kitchen, schoolroom, piggery, laundry area, and dormitories; descriptions of “Father’s House” and its obvious distinction from other living quarters, as well as the use of medical facilities for punishments; references to “Father’s” inner circle, with Joyce being one of his trusted allies. At one point, Joyce seemingly betrays the communal leader and is given a “three-step process” to ensure her inclusion, once again, in this circle.
The story gives voice to the children of Jonestown, sometimes unheard. It also gives voice to an unlikely hero, a lonely gorilla, which reflects emotion of jungle residents. The book also has many climatic moments, from daring escapes to moments of community triumph. For these and many other reasons, I highly recommend the book.
(Matt Fulmer is an elementary teacher of 13 years. He resides in Florence, Alabama, and is pursuing an Educational Specialist Degree. His other book review in this edition of the jtr bulletin is Before White Night. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)