Literary Caribbean: Explore the places behind the novels


This travel piece by Steve Blount appeared in USA Today.

Seen through the eyes of prolific writers, the Caribbean is quirky, mysterious, adventurous, romantic and consummately comedic. They didn’t just make that stuff up; most of it really happened. As the chestnut goes, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. As summer ends, keep that tropical flavor alive with these reads and — if you do decide to travel south — check out the places that inspired them.


Penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner Herman Wouk, Don’t Stop the Carnival is at once the most identifiable and one of the most ambivalent novels set in the Caribbean.

Wouk’s tale about New York press agent Norman Paperman — who leaves his high-pressure life in the city to run a hotel in “Amerigo” — is more than vaguely autobiographical.

A native of Brooklyn, Wouk and his family left the city in 1958 to spend the next 6 years as the owners of the Royal Mail Inn. The Inn, on Hassel Island in Charlotte Amalie Harbor on St. Thomas, was the inspiration for Wouk’s fictional Gull Reef Club.

Initially beguiled by the mirage of a carefree life, Paperman collides head-on with the reality of running a business in the Caribbean — with predictably comic consequences.

Published in 1965, the lighthearted novel is not politically correct by 21st-century standards. Paperman is more than a little patronizing in his attitude toward islanders. And it papers over some of the deeper issues of racial politics, despite the fact that the novel’s title is rooted in those politics. In the plantation days, Carnival was the one week of the year that slaves didn’t have to work. While “don’t stop the carnival” sounds like a party slogan to modern ears, it had its origins in a more plaintive plea.

Jimmy Buffett collaborated with Wouk to turn Don’t Stop the Carnival into a musical, which ran off-Broadway for a single season in 1997.

Today Hassel Island is a hiking destination. Easily reached by kayak from the waterfront at Frenchtown, the St. Thomas Historical Trust runs frequent tours of the island.


Despite having set so many of his stories in Africa and Europe, the Caribbean was Ernest Hemingway’s real muse. He famously lived in Key West, and then decamped to Havana, where he spent his time writing, drinking and fishing from his boat, Pilar.

The two quintessential Caribbean stories in the Hemingway canon are The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream.

Although published separately, the stories were originally part of a single work that knit together three periods in the life of fictional American artist Thomas Hudson — all drawn from Hemingway’s own experiences. The Old Man and the Sea was originally the third part of this collection, but Hemingway published it separately in the late 1950s. The other two pieces were discovered after his death by his wife and editor and fleshed out with another short story Hemingway wrote about his time chasing German submarines off the coast of Cuba during World War II.

The first segment of the trilogy, Bimini, echoes Hemingway’s stay on the island in the summer of 1935, where he was joined by an actual artist, Henry Strater. In the novel, Bimini is Hudson’s refuge and inspiration for work, interrupted when his three sons arrive to spend the summer with him.

The fishing and the tranquil rhythms of the sea didn’t have to be created, Hemingway simply reported what he experienced.

Although Bimini is the closest of The Bahamas islands — just 48 miles — to Florida, the island is far less developed than nearby Grand Bahama and is actually two islands — South Bimini and the fishhook-shaped North Bimini. The main settlement, Alice Town, is on the “shank” of the fishhook facing Florida across the Gulf Stream (the “stream” in Hemingway’s title).

On the passage from Florida to Bimini, Hemingway accidentally shot himself in both legs — an incident he reported humorously in an article for Esquire magazine — while wrangling a shark he’d caught on the way. This was not unusual behavior; Hemingway kept a Thompson submachine gun on board to discourage sharks from coming after the tuna and marlin he hooked while fishing.

Hemingway hosted his famous friends in Bimini and reportedly had a standing offer to pay $100 to anyone who could last more than a few rounds against him in a boxing match. He initially lived aboard Pilar, a 38-foot Wheeler sportfisherman, but eventually moved into a cottage at Brown’s Marina and eventually to room #1 at the Compleat Angler Hotel.

Pilar is now a museum piece, docked on dry land at Hemingway’s former home Finca Vigía near Havana; it’s maintained by the Cuban government as a tourist attraction.

Bimini has changed — but not much. The Compleat Angler burned to the ground in 2006, but Brown’s Marina and its bar are still operating. There are two resorts built since the 1930s, but Bimini is still a fishing town, a place where big money sportsmen bring big boats to hunt for big fish.


The brutal dictatorship of Rafaél Trujillo is exposed in this historical novel. Trujillo was president and later dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, an era marked by the absence of civil liberty and increasing violence. In 1937, he ordered the military to attack Haitian immigrants clustered along the country’s western border in which more than 20,000 Haitians were killed while fleeing. He attempted to assassinate Rómulo Betancourt, the president of Venezuela.

By the 1950s, Trujillo’s extrajudicial killings and pillaging of the national treasury had inspired a dedicated opposition. Among his oppnents were Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal, three sisters known as “Las Mariposas,” the butterflies.

Trujillo was a notorious serial philanderer and rapist who reputedly preferred young girls. He spotted the very attractive Minerva at a party and made advances, which she refused. Trujillo’s secret police applied pressure to her family, deepening their dedication to underground. The sisters distributed pamphlets outlining Trujillo’s crimes and raised money to buy arms and ammunition.

The three sisters were ambushed by Trujillo’s henchman while returning from visiting their husbands in prison on November 25, 1960. They and their driver were beaten to death, their bodies placed back in their car and the car pushed over a cliff to make it look like an accident.

The killings sparked international outrage; Trujillo himself was ambushed and killed six months later by the opposition.

Author Julia Alvarez interviewed the surviving Mirabal sister, Dedé, extensively, and the book paints a grim and detailed picture. It captures the essence of the dictatorships that plagued the Caribbean in the 20th century — Batista in Cuba, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Armas in Guatemala — and the leading role played by the Mirabal sisters in ending Trujillos’ reign.

In The Time of the Butterflies portrays action throughout the island, with many important scenes taking place in the capital, Santo Domingo.

Today, Santo Domingo is an international city of 3 million that thrives on its Colonial-era heritage. Take a tour of the Alcazar Colon, built by Diego Columbus in 1510. The large room on the second floor — once the location of the Audencia Real that governed the Spanish Indies — was used by Trujillo to stage elaborate formal parties.


In the 1950s, the North Shore of Jamaica was a lovefest for American and British celebrities. It was far enough away and hard enough to get to that they could count on being able to conduct affairs without the scrutiny and public condemnation their unconventional behavior might provoke in New York, London or Hollywood.

The eminent — and very gay — playwright Noël Coward found his own refuge here, and built two homes — Blue Harbour and Firefly — that hosted the cream of the entertainment establishment. Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Katharine Hepburn and others were frequent guests.

Coward wrote his play Volcano in 1956 from direct observation: it was obvious to him that his neighbor and good friend Ian Fleming — author of the James Bond novels — was having an affair with his other neighbor, Blanche Blackwell. Blackwell was an heiress, an artist and mother of Chris Blackwell, the record producer and owner of Island Records and Island Outpost. She also appeared in one of Fleming’s novels, Goldfinger, as Pussy Galore.

The tragi-comedic action unfolds onstage as it did in real life as Fleming’s wife Anne (who was having her own affair with a British politician) became aware of the developments between Blackwell and her husband.

The play was largely forgotten until a revival on the London stage in 2012.

Volcano is a candid and revealing take on the tortuous love lives of the rich and powerful. At the time, while these fortunate few were not really expected to follow conventional morality, they were expected not to flaunt their peccadillos in public. It also reveals the tensions in a Jamaica about to vie for its independence, another sort of volcano about to blow.

Today you can stay at Blue Harbour and tour Firefly, which is just up on the hill behind it. Fleming’s Goldeneye villa, also now a resort, is a short distance away. Ironically, Chris Blackwell now owns both Firefly and Goldeneye.


Originally published in 1678, this book by Alexander Exquemelin (or Esquemeling) is an eyewitness account of the birth of the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean. It is the font from which later, more famous works, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s excellent Treasure Island, Peter Benchley’s more recent Island, and the Disney film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, borrowed heavily.

Exquemelin was sold to a surgeon as an indentured servant and, after his master died, took up the trade among the pirates then infesting the region. He was on board Captain Henry Morgan’s ship during the latter’s raid on Panama City in 1671. His descriptions of the raid and the cruelties inflicted on the residents are so vivid that Morgan, who became governor of Jamaica, sued Exquemelin’s publishers for slander and libel.

Exquemelin’s book details the careers and cruelties of the era’s most notorious pirates, their habits, hideouts and raids, including the 1683 raid on Cartagena, Colombia, in which Exquemelin apparently participated.

The pirate’s main ports in Exquemelin’s time were at Tortuga and Port Royal, and he describes both.

The real Tortuga is not the island in the British Virgin Islands as is often claimed but Isle de la Tortue off the north coast of Haiti. Today’s it’s still in the pre-tourism stage of development; high and rocky with a good beach, it’s easy to picture pirates stopping here to load up on fresh water and preserved beef.

Port Royal was situated along the Palisadoes at the entrance to the harbor at Kingston, Jamaica. It was reckoned to be the wickedest city on earth, with one tavern for every 10 inhabitants and a constant influx of pirates flush with ill-gotten gains. Port Royal was struck by an earthquake in 1692 and sank into the ocean. The ruins were excavated by Robert Marx in the 1960s and many artifacts recovered. These are on display in the National Museum of Jamaica and the Fort Charles Museum, both in Kingston.,

For the original report go to

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