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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

The Wine of Astonishment is the story of the struggle of a Spiritual Baptist community, from the passing of the Prohibition Ordinance in 1917 until the lifting of the ban in 1951. It is told by one of the members of the church. Eva begins her narrative of the trials...

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The Wine of Astonishment is the story of the struggle of a Spiritual Baptist community, from the passing of the Prohibition Ordinance in 1917 until the lifting of the ban in 1951. It is told by one of the members of the church. Eva begins her narrative of the trials and sufferings of those of the Spiritual Baptist faith with the notion that there is a purpose behind it all.

The only hope for the villagers of Bonasse, as they see it, lies in Ivan Morton, a teacher turned politician, the new man in the legislative council of the country. They would like Morton to intervene on their behalf to lift the ban so that they can be free to worship in the way that they choose. Morton disappoints them and reveals his loyalty when he abandons the “house that his father build with his own two hands.” With his wife, he leaves the village, taking nothing, to live in the big house “on top of Bonasse hill looking over the sea and the whole village.” The house, which some say is haunted, has itself been abandoned by the Richardsons, colonials who have returned to England.

Meanwhile, the village undergoes significant changes with the coming of the war. An American base is established in the country, resulting in prostitution and the corruption of the youth. At the same time, the Spiritual Baptists suffer persecution at the hands of the police and government. At the center of this harassment is the cruel and relentless Corporal Prince, whom Bolo, the warrior and champion stick fighter, suggests should be killed. Bolo challenges Prince as Prince takes the worshipers to jail, but he is beaten and arrested by the police while the others look on passively. For his action, Bolo is sent to jail for three years of hard labor.

While the warrior Bolo is in jail, the people of Bonasse, believing this to be the time of the intellectual, work to elect Morton to the legislative council, seeing him as “a man to plead [their] cause, to change the law, to right the wrong that is going on against [them] for those long years.” Bolo returns from jail only to find his efforts at making an honest living frustrated by the bureaucracy.

Contemptuous of the community, Bolo challenges the stickmen to do battle with him, but no one obliges. From this point on, the warrior in Bolo degenerates into the “badjohn.” He terrorizes the Bonasse community “with his recklessness and vexation and wickedness boiling up in him.” The community’s outrage reaches a limit when Bolo takes the two daughters of one of the villagers to live with him. Determined to show him “we is a people,” Bee, the leader of the Spiritual Baptists, decides that they “have to go against him with strength and anger.” They must take up their “manhood challenge that [they] turn away from for too long.” Bolo is finally killed by the police in a showdown.

Shortly thereafter, with the approach of elections, a law is passed allowing the Baptists the freedom to worship in their own way. When the church congregation gathers to celebrate its freedom, however, the “Spirit just wouldn’t come,” in spite of the impassioned preaching, incense burning, and candle lighting. The sadness that Eva, Bee, and the others experience at this realization is assuaged by the music of the steel pans that they hear on their way home. They are convinced that the pan music has in it “the same spirit that we miss in our church.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1407

Eva’s opening meditation begins in medias res as she describes her husband Bee’s frustration from the lack of change that has occurred since Ivan Morton’s election to the Legislative Council in 1946. The immediate occasion of Bee’s inner turmoil is Morton’s failure to lift a ban on the manner in which Bee’s church, the Spiritual Baptist Church, conducts its worship services. Eva, from her first-person limited omniscient point of view, describes Bee as “a spider trap in its web,” a man powerless to force a change in the laws that would allow his congregation to worship according to their traditional practices of hand-clapping, bell-ringing, shouting, and speaking in tongues. Bee, once tolerant of change, now feels betrayed; he has worked tirelessly for Morton’s victory in the elections, believing that the educated voice for self-determination would convince the British colonial government to lift the ban.

Morton, however, has denied his blackness, his origins, and the support of the people who elected him. Although from a Spiritual Baptist family, Morton converted to Catholicism in order to gain admission to college. The British administration on the island sanctions only Catholicism and Anglicanism, suppressing the “heathen” indigenous religious practices. In Morton’s rise to power on the Council, he has catered only to the most powerful of his constituents, ignoring the peasantry to which he owes his victory. When Bee confronts Morton for not supporting reform that would permit religious freedom, Morton replies: “We can’t be white, but we can act white.” Bee’s reaction is to blame Morton’s insensitivity on his colonial education, yet Bee’s own son Reggie has been accepted into the local high school; Bee must decide whether to deplete the family’s meager resources in order to pay his tuition. Eva persuades him to do so, despite Bee’s doubt, based on Morton’s example, that education will facilitate freedom.

In the midst of Bee’s uncertainty about the value of a modern education and his fears that the Spirit in his church will not survive, Eva then begins a series of flashbacks to provide the background for the sense of entrapment that initiates the novel. Before World War II, the Spiritual Baptist Church and stickfighting at Carnival had been the two primary social institutions in Bonasse, a small village of farmers, fishermen, and laborers on the local coconut plantation. The church and stickfighting had allowed the people to retain a sense of their African origins, albeit faintly so after two centuries of colonial rule. From Eva’s point of view, these practices were the remaining sources of cultural pride and family unity.

With the waning of plantation profits and increasing unemployment, however, education became more important than either the people or the government previously thought it to be, and education brought with it the assimilation of indigenous life-styles into English values and institutions. As a result, the persecution of the Spiritual Baptists intensified in the 1930’s to the outright banning of the traditional services. For the first few years, the laws against the church were not rigorously enforced, but, with the arrival of American occupational forces during the war, the law was more forcefully imposed. Other changes in village life also followed: The military base outside Bonasse created a booming cash economy fueled by small-time hustlers, prostitutes, and nightlife in the bars. Traditional singing gave way to the popular calypso songs; stickfighting was banned. The moral life of the village disintegrated, and the church was forced into hiding outside town in the forest.

The appointment of Corporal Prince, a zealous black man intent on demonstrating his power, brought even further repression of the church and, subsequently, greater division in the community. Some members of the congregation, such as Bolo, who had stopped attending services when Bee instituted quiet singing in order to comply partially with the law, favored the outright murder of Prince; others argued that their own educated leaders, such as Morton, would have greater success in lifting the repressive laws through a peaceful political process. Bee, however, had seen the influence of the church waning so drastically—his two eldest sons had left the community, Winston, the oldest, becoming a policeman, and Taffy, hating his own blackness, seeking the excitement of Port of Spain—that he decided to defy the law, returning to his traditional preaching. As a result, the Spirit returned, and the people, for a moment at least, were able to take solace in the liberating Word of their beliefs.

Prince, however, responded quickly to this revival of the Spirit, raiding the church after the first service and arresting the entire congregation, including Bolo’s mother. Bolo was nearly a legendary figure in Bonasse, the champion stickfighter, fearing no one. When he confronted Prince at the arrest, he was badly beaten by the police. The congregation, who stood by and watched, did not help him defend himself. Morton, also present at the scene, did not intervene on behalf of either Bolo or the congregation, despite his stature as a teacher and politician. Bolo was sentenced to prison for three years; Bee, as the pastor, was fined and had to sell his only cow in order to pay the fine.

When the war finally ended and the Americans went home, opportunistic local businessmen took advantage of the chaos of the inflated economy. A new industry developed: tourism. With Carnival and stickfighting restored (although only as a semblance of what they had been before the war), Bee hoped the laws against the Baptists would also be relaxed. There was hope for further, more substantial reform as well, for landless people were now able to vote, and Bee worked hard to convince the people that Morton, as one of their own and a respected, educated man, would champion their cause. Morton, however, after having won the election, merely used his office to further his own status; he bought a new car, hired a driver, and moved into the old plantation house, the “big house,” on the hill overlooking Bonasse.

At this point in the action, Eva’s narration returns to the present as she describes Bolo’s return after having served his prison term. Bolo mocks the corruption of the local government, doing nothing on his civil service job and intimidating the local bureaucrats. He humiliates his opponents in the stickfights, smashing the drums when they refuse to fight in fear. Unable to accept the corruption of traditional village life and the degradation of stickfight ceremonies into tourist sideshows, he picks fights at every opportunity and, often drunk, steals openly, insults women, and wrecks a bar. Daring the police to arrest him, he mirrors the village’s loss of self-respect and models its self-destructive patterns. While he mocks primarily those people who no longer seem to have a sense of faith in the church, he also needles those believers who have failed to resist the suppression of their religion.

Finally, Bolo, unable to provoke any reaction but fear from the village, kidnaps two young girls, forcing the village to stand up against him. Bee realizes what Bolo is doing and decides that, rather than involve the police, the people will have to kill Bolo, as Bolo himself has asked that they do if they want the girls back.

The police, however, arrive at the same time that Bee does, because Primus, the girls’ father, has brought them. When Bee tries to speak with Bolo in order to convince him to relinquish the girls, Bolo is shocked that Bee would deprive him of his sacrificial role. Again and again Bolo mutters, in a “soft voice of astonishment,” that “they bring police for me.” In the confusing melee in the wake of Bolo’s refusal to turn over the girls, both Bolo and Muriel, the youngest daughter, are killed by police gunfire.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Eva and Bee recognize Bolo as a Christ figure whom the people have failed. Having deprived Bolo of his martyrdom and themselves of the unity they might have achieved in resisting his actions, the congregation cannot rekindle the Spirit when the ban on the church is lifted so that Morton can be reelected. While Eva consoles Bee after services, they pass by a steel band. In the music that seems to engulf them, Eva and Bee look at each other, acknowledging the presence of the Spirit emanating from the drum.

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