The Wine of Astonishment

by Earl Lovelace

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Last Updated May 21, 2024.


Earl Lovelace sets his 1982 novel The Wine of Astonishment in his native Trinidad in a small village called Bonasse. The story covers a range of years, beginning in the years just before World War II and traveling to 1951. 

Many of the main characters, including the narrator, Eva Dorcas, are Spiritual Baptists—practitioners of a religion that blends Christianity with African traditions. Bonasse’s Spiritual Baptists, led by Eva’s husband, preacher Bee Dorcas, are a persecuted group. The British, who governed Trinidad during this period, prohibited the worship of the Spiritual Baptists, calling it uncivilized and heathen, under the Prohibition Ordinance.

After the Prohibition Ordinance went into effect in 1917, many Spiritual Baptist churches continued to operate quietly. During wartime, however, the British government tightened control, arresting worshipers and shutting down churches unless they conformed to a Western style of worship. This persecution—and the response of the Spiritual Baptists—occupy the heart of Lovelace’s novel.

Plot Summary

The story opens shortly after the end of World War II. Bee and Eva Dorcas and the other Black people of Bonasse have helped elect one of their neighbors, Ivan Morton, to the Council; they have great hopes that he will work to repeal the Prohibition Ordinance. 

However, Ivan proves ineffectual; nothing changes. 

Bee and his congregation remain limited in their expressions of worship, still unable to ring their bells, shout, speak in tongues, sing their traditional songs, or dance to call on the Holy Spirit. When Bee begs Ivan to deliver his promises, Ivan merely tells him that they have to become civilized and abandon heathen worship. 

It is then that the warrior Bolo returns to the village.

At this point, the story flashes back in time, picking up right before the outbreak of WWII to tell Bolo's story. He was a famous stickfighter (a fighting style blending single combat with music and dance) and village hero, whose behavior and value operate in stark contrast to Ivan's. While Ivan abandons the Spiritual Baptist faith to become Catholic and work his way into a teaching position at the local school, Bolo remains “king” of Bonasse, loved by all as a good, brave man.

But Bonasse changes during World War II. Americans arrive; many villagers get jobs at the Bonasse military base and start to dress and act like Americans. Then, the British government prohibits real stickfighting and cracks down on Spiritual Baptist worship. 

While Bolo openly despises the mock stickfights the men want him to participate in, Bee leads the church in toning down its services.

The new police corporal, Prince, is harsh and allows no leniency toward the church. Bolo advises killing him, but Bee and the other men reject the idea. 

In deliberate violation of the law, Bee decides to return to true Spiritual Baptist worship, but Prince and his force arrest the worshipers. Incensed, Bolo confronts and fights Prince and ends up in jail.

Time passes. The war ends. The novel returns to its original timeframe, when the people of Bonasse receive the right to vote and work to elect Ivan to the Council. Shortly after his victory, Ivan turns his back on his constituents, moves into a big house, and starts living the life of a white man. Times are hard, with little work and much oppression.

When Bolo returns from serving his sentence, he merely wants to settle down, get married, and own a small farm. But his old girlfriend is gone, and officials ignore his land application. With all of his familiar mores gone, Bolo becomes a “badjohn” and begins terrorizing the people of Bonasse. No one can stop him.

Things come to a head when Bolo kidnaps two village sisters, and their father goes to the police. Although Bee and some of the village men intend to confront Bolo, the police shoot and kill Bolo...

(This entire section contains 775 words.)

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instead. The tragedy makes Bee and Eva realize that, all along, Bolo has been antagonizing them in hopes of getting the villagers to stand up for themselves.

The story ends with the repeal of the Prohibition Ordinance and the church’s return to its traditional worship. Members are surprised, however, when the Holy Spirit does not fall upon them as before. Yet Eva has hope, for she sees the Spirit working in many ways, and they are now free to worship as they wish.