(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 entire section is 592 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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,...

(The entire section is 1407 words.)