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New Day Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

New Day opens in 1944 on the eve of the granting of a new constitution, one of the last steps on the road to Jamaican political independence. One of the Jamaican leaders at the time is Garth Campbell, and the event prompts his eighty-seven-year-old great-uncle, Johnny Campbell, to think back to 1865 and his family’s participation in the colony’s frequently violent political development.

The first and longest of the novel’s three sections deals with the events of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion. Although some historical figures appear in the novel, events and characters, including the fictitious Campbell, have been molded to suit the novelist’s purpose. The novel’s action is related in the first person by the dialect-speaking narrator Johnny Campbell, who as a child of eight is caught up in the maelstrom of events which, over the course of a few weeks, lead to the killing of his father and the transformation of his brother David (Davie) Campbell into a young man fleeing for his life from the colonial authorities.

The extreme suffering of the Jamaican peasantry has been brought on by a three-year drought and the disruption, because of civil war in America, of traditional food supplies; it has been exacerbated by the greed of the white planters, who exploited the situation in order to obtain cheaper labor, and the colonial governor, who answered desperate pleas for help with disdain and a show of force.

The near-white and relatively secure Campbell family is split over how the present crisis should be solved. The stern patriarch, Pa John Campbell, violently disagrees with his blond-haired son Davie over the latter’s joining a group led by the radical Baptist deacon Paul Bogle, whom Pa John’s Church of England pastor describes as “a black Satan in human form . . . preaching sedition against the most gracious person of our Queen!”

The inevitable confrontation between the angry peasants and the established authority is bungled by both sides, and the result is that hundreds are slaughtered, mass executions are ordered by drumhead tribunals, and what representative government existed is abolished. Davie Campbell, along with his youngest brother, Johnny, and intended bride, Lucille Dubois, flees Jamaica for a small cay off the coast.

The second section of the novel deals with the period 1866 to 1882. Under a grant of immunity from prosecution, Davie, as one of the few left alive of those who marched with Bogle, addresses the Royal Commission inquiring into the Rebellion and puts the case for the rebels so eloquently and forcefully that the public audience declares, “Is the man for the glory, this!” Davie knows that Bogle’s uprising has resulted in even less freedom than before but looks forward to “a new day” when representative government will return to the island, and laws for the poor will not be made by buckras (whites) but by the poor themselves.

With Lucille, Johnny, and a small band of workers, Davie returns to his cay, which he calls Salt Savannah after his childhood home, and gradually establishes a thriving community. His dedication to hard work and austere living becomes obsessive and life-denying; he becomes a religious zealot, refers to his cay as Zion, and attempts to shield his people from outside influences. Just as Davie and his community seem headed for crisis, he loses his life in a hurricane, and his...

(The entire section is 845 words.)