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Literature / The Painted Canoe

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Miles away from home...

The Painted Canoe is a novel by Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler, which was published in 1984.

Zachariah Pelsie is an extremely ugly fisherman who lives in the community of Charity Bay. One day, while out fishing as usual, he dozes off...and when he wakes up, he finds himself far away from shore. He must now make his way back to land in his canoe, battling the elements, hunger and thirst, a man-eating hammerhead shark, and his own troubled memories.

Meanwhile, back on land, his family and neighbors have varying reactions to his disappearance. As he travels on the sea, Zachariah reflects on his relationships with each of them, and on how he will relate to them when he finally returns.

The Painted Canoe was Winkler's first novel, and is stated to be his favorite.

Tropes present in The Painted Canoe:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Carina is this toward her older son George. The narrative informs us that this is because he was born too soon after the death of Carina and Zachariah's first child.
    • Zachariah's mother was this way toward him as well, from what we see of his flashbacks to his childhood.
  • Ax-Crazy: Dr. Archibald Richardson. The villagers refer to him as "the mad English doctor."
  • Bad Boss: Dr. Richardson.
  • Big Bad: The doctor, yet again. He is the most directly antagonistic force in the story, and not just to Zachariah, but to other villagers as well.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Zachariah is...rather well-equipped, as Carina discovers during her seduction of him in one of his flashbacks.
  • Butt-Monkey: Mr. Lewis, the local shopkeeper, is frequently beaten up by his wife.
  • Calling The Old Woman Out: Zachariah recalls that he wanted to do this to his mother for all her abuse of him in his childhood, but he refrained from doing this because she was sickly and (though he didn't know it then) in her last moments.
  • Character Development: Several characters develop this as a result of Zachariah's experience at sea.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Zachariah's vow never to ask God for anything unless he's at death's door.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Mrs. Lewis's abuse of her husband. At least, it's supposed to be funny.
  • Deadly Doctor: Dr. Richardson tries to kill Zachariah by lethal injection.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The book has a few.
    • This gem from Zachariah, directed at the pastor after the first instance of Zachariah walking out of a sermon because he disliked its content:
    Pastor: How you leave the church so sudden? De gripe take your belly?
    Zachariah: Wrongful doctrine sick me.
    • There's also Dr. Richards' assistant, largely due to the doctor being as eccentric as he is. For instance, when he decides to cook and eat a chicken that was left on his clinic door as a curse from the local obeah man:
    Dr. Richards: Who can eat chicken without seasoning?
    Nurse: Who can eat obeah chicken?
  • Death of a Child: Zachariah and Carina's first child, a daughter, was felled by illness a very short while after her birth.
  • Death Seeker: Dr. Richardson behaves like one on several occasions.
  • The Determinator: Zachariah. Nothing will stop him from returning to land—not exposure to the elements, not a hammerhead shark, not dehydration, not even the threat of madness due to isolation.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: On one occasion George refused to play a game of "Farmer in the Dell" because on three past occasions he'd been selected to be the cheese, and he was therefore fearful that if he was selected for that same role any more times, his classmates would nickname him "Cheese." The principal's response to this was to beat George with a strap hard enough for welts to show up all over the boy's body (and Zachariah threatened to chop the principal when he found out).
  • Does Not Like Men: Carina is distrustful of men up to when she first meets Zachariah, due to having Rape as Backstory.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: As revealed in one of Zachariah's flashbacks, Carina took Zachariah by surprise with rather rough seduction, the first week he came under her roof. Zachariah's recollection of the incident doesn't say he consented, but neither does Carina ever get called out for basically forcing herself on him.
  • Driven to Suicide: The doctor.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Dr. Richardson, yet again.
  • Embarrassing First Name: The constable admits having one to the doctor during their mutual Christmas celebration, and in fact he says it's not a name he is proud of. It's Marion.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Dr. Richardson may be a massive dick who treats others (including his own family) with condescension, but even he reacted badly when the parson came up with a sermon declaring that it was God's will that Seddie should have been devoured by a shark (a sermon which Zachariah stormed out of because he found it rude and indecent so soon after the man's death). While the numerous accounts on the doctor's reaction when he learned of the sermon were varied and inconsistent, they all agreed on one point—the doctor had sworn that if he'd been in the church during the sermon he would have shot the parson dead in the pulpit.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Dr. Richardson is this taken up to eleven.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Well, go more mad in Seahorse's case, as Zachariah remembers it. Already having gotten Sanity Slippage from being isolated at sea for so long, when Seahorse finally got back to land he found out that his girlfriend was having an affair with a younger man. Seahorse...didn't take it well.
  • Groin Attack: Carina threatens to cut off the Parson’s “business” if he comes back to her house and says one more bad thing to Zachariah. Also, Zachariah recalls that she subjected him to a savage wringing during one of their lovemaking sessions, when he tried to get on top—something she could not abide because of Rape as Backstory.
  • Happily Married: Zachariah and Carina are an interesting variation, given that they're not legally married.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Zachariah starts developing this shortly after his return from the sea. It's the first sign that his cancer, which he had prior to getting lost at sea, is getting far advanced.
  • Jerkass: The Pastor. Zachariah hates him because of it.
  • Kick the Dog: Mrs. Lewis frequently beats up her husband, often with absolutely no provocation from him.
    • The Dog Bites Back: During the party to celebrate Zachariah's safe return from the sea, Mr. Lewis—emboldened by drunkenness—grabs Mrs. Lewis and gives her a sound thrashing.
  • Mad Doctor: Take a guess.
  • Manly Tears: Zachariah does this. The context is Tear Jerker fuel.
  • Ocean Madness: Happened to Seahorse, and almost happens to Zachariah; however, Zachariah manages not to succumb.
  • Papa Wolf: When George is brutally strapped by his principal for refusing to take part in a ring-game, Zachariah threatens to chop the man with a machete. When next he sees the principal, though, he chides himself for not have his machete with him.
  • Parental Favoritism: Carina loves her younger son Wilfred, but treats her older son George with disdain. Zachariah plans that once he gets back to land, he’ll tell her that one of the things he learned at sea is that a mother must love her children equally.
  • Prayer Is a Last Resort: Zachariah believes very strongly in this. Specifically, he feels that mankind calls on God too often for minor things that could be easily rectified by human effort, and that therefore God has grown tired of listening to men calling on Him so often and won't lift a finger when the trouble is genuinely severe. Zachariah therefore decides that the next time he calls on God for anything, he'll have to be at death's door. The penultimate chapter results in him doing just that because of his cancer.
  • Rape as Backstory: Carina was abused by her mother's boyfriends as a child.
  • Really Gets Around: The new doctor who comes to replace Dr. Richardson following the latter's suicide quickly develops a reputation in the village for being, as the narrative describes him, "as lecherous as a goat."
  • Sanity Slippage: Seahorse, one of Zachariah's dead friends, had also been lost at sea for an extended period of time, and gradually went mad from the perpetual isolation (it didn't help that a shark took off his leg). Zachariah comes dangerously close to losing his mind during his own isolation at sea, but manages to fight it off by remembering his dead daughter.
  • Straw Nihilist: Dr. Richardson does not believe in God, nor does he believe that life has any meaning or point, and he scoffs at anyone whose worldview doesn't mesh with his own.
  • Suspiciously Specific Sermon: When Zachariah first explains his philosophy about Prayer Is a Last Resort, the following Sunday the pastor prepares a sermon with the intention of denouncing the idea. Zachariah's response is to walk out of the church.
  • Threatening Shark:
    • A hammerhead shark tails Zachariah in his canoe.
    • Zachariah recalls that in the past, one shark attacked a sea-stranded friend, Seahorse, and took off his leg, and another shark devoured another friend, Seddie, and left his wife a widow and his child fatherless.
  • Witch Doctor: Lubeck, the local obeah man. He is one of several points of contention between Zachariah and Carina, as while Zachariah believes he's a fraudster who cons people out of their money, Carina believes he does in fact have genuine power and goes to him for help when Zachariah's cancer begins to manifest. Lubeck is also enemies with Dr. Richardson, even nailing a chicken's corpse to the door of the clinic as part of a curse on the doctor.