James Berry (b. 1924) was raised in a tiny seaside village in
Jamaica. At seventeen, he left home for the United States. Unhappy
there, he returned to Jamaica four years later. Although Berry
moved to England in 1948, much of his writing focuses on his
early Caribbean home. He chooses to use the local language
of his childhood in his writing because he wants to express the
experience of living in his home village. Berry has won many
literary awards for his poetry and stories.
SETTING A PURPOSE As you read, pay attention to the clues
that help you understand the relationship between the boy
and his father. Write down any questions you have while
In the hours the hurricane stayed, its presence made everybody older. It made Mr. Bass see that not only people
and animals and certain valuables were of most importance to
From its very buildup the hurricane meant to show it
was merciless, unstoppable, and, with its might, changed
All day the Jamaican sun didn’t come out. Then, ten
minutes before, there was a swift shower of rain that raced by
and was gone like some urgent messenger-rush of wind. And
again everything went back to that quiet, that unnatural quiet.
It was as if trees crouched quietly in fear. As if, too, birds knew
they should shut up. A thick and low black cloud had covered
the sky and shadowed everywhere, and made it seem like
Short Story by James BerryShort Story by James Berry
The Banana Tree 171
night was coming on. And the cloud deepened. Its deepening
spread more and more over the full stretch of the sea.
The doom-laden afternoon had the atmosphere of
Judgment Day1 for everybody in all the districts about.
Everybody knew the hour of disaster was near. Warnings
printed in bold lettering had been put up at post offices, police
stations, and school-yard entrances and in clear view on shop
walls in village squares.
Carrying children and belongings, people hurried in files
and in scattered groups, headed for the big, strong, and safe
community buildings. In Canerise Village, we headed for the
schoolroom. Loaded with bags and cases, with bundles and
lidded baskets, individuals carrying or leading an animal,
parents shrieking for children to stay at their heels, we arrived
there. And looking around, anyone would think the whole of
Canerise was here in this vast superbarn of a noisy chattering
With violent gusts and squalls the storm broke. Great
rushes, huge bulky rushes, of wind struck the building
in heavy, repeated thuds, shaking it over and over and
Families were huddled together on the f loor. People sang,
sitting on benches, desks, anywhere there was room. Some
people knelt in loud prayer. Among the refugees’ noises a goat
bleated, a hen f luttered or cackled, a dog whined.
Mr. Jetro Bass was sitting on a soap box. His broad back
leaned on the blackboard against the wall. Mrs. Imogene Bass,
largely pregnant, looked a midget beside him. Their children
were sitting on the f loor. The eldest boy, Gustus, sat farthest
from his father. Altogether, the children’s heads made seven
different levels of height around the parents. Mr. Bass forced
a reassuring smile. His toothbrush mustache2 moved about a
little as he said, “The storm’s bad, chil’run. Really bad. But it’ll
blow off. It’ll spen’ itself out. It’ll kill itself.”
Except for Gustus’s, all the faces of the children turned up
with subdued fear and looked at their father as he spoke.
1 Judgment Day: a religious term for the end of the world.
2 toothbrush mustache (m≠s t́√sh´): a small, rectangular unshaven area of hair
on a man’s upper lip.
“Das true wha’ Pappy say,” Mrs. Bass said. “The good Lord
won’ gi’ we more than we can bear.”
Mr. Bass looked at Gustus. He stretched fully through
the sitting children and put a lumpy, blistery hand—though a
huge hand—on the boy’s head, almost covering it. The boy’s
clear brown eyes looked straight and unblinkingly into his
father’s face. “Wha’s the matter, bwoy?” his dad asked.
He shook his head. “Nothin’, Pappy.”
“Wha’ mek you say nothin’? I sure somet’ing bodder
you, Gustus. You not a bwoy who frighten easy. Is not the
hurricane wha’ bodder you? Tell Pappy.”
“You’re a big bwoy now. Gustus—you nearly thirteen. You
strong. You very useful fo’ you age. You good as mi right han’.
I depen’ on you. But this afternoon—earlier—in the rush,
when we so well push to move befo’ storm broke, you couldn’
rememba a t’ing! Not one t’ing! Why so? Wha’ on you mind?
You harborin’ t’ings from me, Gustus?”
Gustus opened his mouth to speak but closed it again.
He knew his father was proud of how well he had grown.
To strengthen him, he had always given him “last milk”3
straight from the cow in the mornings. He was thankful.
But to him his strength was only proven in the number of
innings he could pitch for his cricket team. The boy’s lips
trembled. What’s the good of tellin’ when Pappy don’ like
cricket. He only get vex4 an’ say it’s an evil game for idle
hands! He twisted his head and looked away. “I’m harborin’
“Gustus . . . ”
At that moment a man called, “Mr. Bass!” He came up
quickly. “Got a hymnbook, Mr. Bass? We want you to lead
The people were sitting with bowed heads, humming
a song. As the repressed singing grew louder and louder, it
sounded mournful in the room. Mr. Bass shuff led, looking
around as if he wished to back out of the suggestion. But his
rich voice and singing leadership were too famous. Mrs. Bass
3 last milk: the last milk taken from milking a cow; this milk is usually the
richest in nutrients and taste.
4 vex: dialect for vexed, meaning “annoyed.”
(r∆-pr≈s´) v. If you
you hold it back or
try to stop it from
The Banana Tree 173
already had the hymnbook in her hand, and she pushed it at
her husband. He took it and began turning the leaves as he
moved toward the center of the room.
Immediately Mr. Bass was surrounded. He started with a
resounding chant over the heads of everybody. “Abide wid me;
fast fall the eventide . . . ” He joined the singing but broke off
to recite the next line. “The darkness deepen; Lord, wid me,
abide . . . ” Again, before the last long-drawn note faded from
the deeply stirred voices, Mr. Bass intoned musically, “When
odder helpers fail, and comfo’ts f lee . . . ”
In this manner he fired inspiration into the singing of
hymn after hymn. The congregation swelled their throats,
and their mixed voices filled the room, pleading to heaven
from the depths of their hearts. But the wind outside mocked
viciously. It screamed. It whistled. It smashed everywhere up.
Mrs. Bass had tightly closed her eyes, singing and swaying
in the center of the children who nestled around her. But
Gustus was by himself. He had his elbows on his knees and his
hands blocking his ears. He had his own worries.
(m≤k) v. To mock
someone is to treat
them with scorn or
What’s the good of Pappy asking all those questions when
he treat him so bad? He’s the only one in the family without a
pair of shoes! Because he’s a big boy, he don’t need anyt’ing an’
must do all the work. He can’t stay at school in the evenings
an’ play cricket5 because there’s work to do at home. He can’t
have no outings with the other children because he has no
shoes. An’ now when he was to sell his bunch of bananas
an’ buy shoes so he can go out with his cricket team, the
hurricane is going to blow it down.
It was true: the root of the banana was his “navel string.”6
After his birth the umbilical cord7 was dressed with castor oil
and sprinkled with nutmeg and buried, with the banana tree
planted over it for him. When he was nine days old, the nana
midwife8 had taken him out into the open for the first time.
She had held the infant proudly and walked the twenty-five
yards that separated the house from the kitchen, and at the
back showed him his tree. “‘Memba when you grow up,” her
toothless mouth had said, “it’s you nable strings feedin’ you
tree, the same way it feed you from you mudder.”
Refuse from the kitchen made the plant f lourish out of
all proportion. But the rich soil around it was loose. Each
time the tree gave a shoot, the bunch would be too heavy for
the soil to support; so it crashed to the ground, crushing the
tender fruit. This time, determined that his banana must
reach the market, Gustus had supported his tree with eight
props. And as he watched it night and morning, it had become
very close to him. Often he had seriously thought of moving
his bed to its root.
Muff led cries, and the sound of blowing noses, now
mixed with the singing. Delayed impact of the disaster was
happening. Sobbing was everywhere. Quickly the atmosphere
became sodden with the wave of weeping outbursts.
5 cricket (kr∆k´∆t): an English sport similar to baseball.
6 navel string: a term for the umbilical cord.
7 umbilical cord (≠m-b∆l´∆-k∂l kôrd): the cord through which an unborn baby
(fetus) receives nourishment from its mother; a person’s navel is the place where
the cord was attached.
8 nana midwife: a woman who helps other women give birth and cares for
The Banana Tree 175
Mrs. Bass’s pregnant belly heaved. Her younger children
were upset and cried, “Mammy, Mammy, Mammy . . . ”
Realizing that his family, too, was overwhelmed by
the surrounding calamity, Mr. Bass bustled over to them.
Because their respect for him bordered on fear, his presence
quietened all immediately. He looked around. “Where’s
Gustus! Imogene . . . where’s Gustus!”
“He was ’ere, Pappy,” she replied, drying her eyes. “I dohn
know when he get up.”
Briskly Mr. Bass began combing the schoolroom to find
his boy. He asked; no one had seen Gustus. He called. There
was no answer. He tottered, lifting his heavy boots over heads,
fighting his way to the jalousie.9 He opened it, and his eyes
gleamed up and down the road but saw nothing of the boy. In
despair Mr. Bass gave one last thunderous shout: “Gustus!”
Only the wind sneered.
By this time Gustus was halfway on the mile journey to
their house. The lone figure in the raging wind and shin-deep
road f lood was tugging, snapping, and pitching branches out
of his path. His shirt was f luttering from his back like a boat
sail. And a leaf was fastened to his cheek. But the belligerent
wind was merciless. It bellowed into his ears and drummed a
deafening commotion. As he grimaced and covered his ears,
he was forcefully slapped against a coconut tree trunk that lay
across the road.
When his eyes opened, his round face was turned up to a
festered10 sky. Above the tormented trees a zinc sheet writhed,
twisted, and somersaulted in the tempestuous f lurry. Leaves
of all shapes and sizes were whirling and diving like attackers
around the zinc sheet. As Gustus turned to get up, a bullet
drop of rain struck his temple. He shook his head, held grimly
to the tree trunk, and struggled to his feet.
Where the road was clear, he edged along the bank. Once,
when the wind staggered him, he recovered with his legs wide
apart. Angrily he stretched out his hands with clenched fists
and shouted, “I almos’ hol’ you that time. . . . Come solid like
that again, an’ we fight like man an’ man!”
9 jalousie (j√l ∂́-s∏): a window blind or shutter with adjustable thin slats.
10 festered (f≈s t́∂rd): infected and irritated; diseased.
(gr∆m´∆s) v. If you
grimace, you twist
your face in an
because you are
or in pain.
When Gustus approached the river he had to cross, it was
f looded and blocked beyond recognition. Pressing his chest
against the gritty road bank, the boy closed his weary eyes
on the brink of the spating river. The wrecked footbridge had
become the harboring fort for all the debris, branches, and
monstrous tree trunks which the river swept along its course.
The river was still swelling. More accumulation arrived each
moment, ramming and pressing the bridge. Under pressure it
was cracking and shifting minutely toward a turbulent forty-
Gustus had seen it! A feeling of dismay paralyzed him,
reminding him of his foolish venture. He scraped his cheek
on the bank looking back. But how can he go back? He has
no strength to go back. His house is nearer than the school.
An’ Pappy will only strap him for nothin’ . . . for nothin’ . . .
no shoes, nothin’, when the hurricane is gone.
With trembling fingers he tied up the remnants of his
shirt. He made a bold step, and the wind half lifted him,
ducking him in the muddy f lood. He sank to his neck.
Floating leaves, sticks, coconut husks, dead ratbats, and all
manner of feathered creatures and refuse surrounded him.
Forest vines under the water entangled him. But he struggled
desperately until he clung to the laden bridge and climbed up
among leaf less branches.
His legs were bruised and bore deep scratches, but steadily
he moved up on the slimy pile. He felt like a man at sea, in the
heart of a storm, going up the mast of a ship. He rested his feet
on a smooth log that stuck to the water-splashed heap like a
black torso. As he strained up for another grip, the torso came
to life and leaped from under his feet. Swiftly sliding down, he
grimly clutched some brambles.
The urgency of getting across became more frightening,
and he gritted his teeth and dug his toes into the debris,
climbing with maddened determination. But a hard gust
of wind slammed the wreck, pinning him like a motionless
lizard. For a minute the boy was stuck there, panting, swelling
his naked ribs.
He stirred again and reached the top. He was sliding over a
breadfruit limb when a f lutter startled him. As he looked and
saw the clean-head crow and glassy-eyed owl close together,
(v≈n ćh∂r) n.
A venture is a
dangerous, daring, or
poorly planned task
(bôr) v. (past tense
of bear) If you
say a person bore
something, you mean
they carried it or had
it on them; it is visible
in some way.
The Banana Tree 177
there was a powerful jolt. Gustus f lung himself into the air
and fell in the expanding water on the other side. When he
surfaced, the river had dumped the entire wreckage into the
gurgling gully. For once the wind helped. It blew him to land.
Gustus was in a daze when he reached his house. Mud
and rotten leaves covered his head and face, and blood caked
around a gash on his chin. He bent down, shielding himself
behind a tree stump whose white heart was a needly splinter,
murdered by the wind.
He could hardly recognize his yard. The terrorized trees
that stood were writhing in turmoil. Their thatched house had
collapsed like an open umbrella that was given a heavy blow.
He looked the other way and whispered, “Is still there! That’s a
miracle. . . . That’s a miracle.”
Dodging the wind, he staggered from tree to tree until
he got to his own tormented banana tree. Gustus hugged the
tree. “My nable string!” he cried. “My nable string! I know you
would stan’ up to it, I know you would.”
The bones of the tree’s stalky leaves were broken, and the
wind lifted them and harassed them. And over Gustus’s head
the heavy fruit swayed and swayed. The props held the tree,
but they were squeaking and slipping. And around the plant
the roots stretched and trembled, gradually surfacing under
With the rags of his wet shirt f lying off his back, Gustus
was down busily on his knees, bracing, pushing, tightening
the props. One by one he was adjusting them until a heavy
rush of wind knocked him to the ground. A prop fell on him,
but he scrambled to his feet and looked up at the thirteen-
hand bunch of bananas. “My good tree,” he bawled, “hol’ you
fruit. . . . Keep it to you heart like a mudder savin’ her baby!
Don’t let the wicked wind t’row you to the groun’ . . . even if it
t’row me to the groun’. I will not leave you.”
But several attempts to replace the prop were futile. The
force of the wind against his weight was too much for him.
He thought of a rope to lash the tree to anything, but it was
difficult to make his way into the kitchen, which, separate
from the house, was still standing. The invisible hand of the
wind tugged, pushed, and forcefully restrained him. He got
down and crawled on his belly into the earth-f loor kitchen.
As he showed himself with the rope, the wind tossed him, like
washing on the line, against his tree.
The boy was hurt! He looked crucified against the tree.
The spike of the wind was slightly withdrawn. He fell, folded
on the ground. He lay there unconscious. And the wind had
no mercy for him. It shoved him, poked him, and molested his
clothes like muddy newspaper against the tree.
As darkness began to move in rapidly, the wind grew more
vicious and surged a mighty gust that struck the resisting
kitchen. It was heaved to the ground in a rubbled pile. The
brave wooden hut had been shielding the banana tree but in
its death fall missed it by inches. The wind charged again, and
the soft tree gurgled—the fruit was torn from it and plunged
to the ground.
The wind was less fierce when Mr. Bass and a searching
party arrived with lanterns. Because the bridge was
washed away, the hazardous roundabout journey had badly
Talks about safety were mockery to the anxious father.
Relentlessly he searched. In the darkness his great voice
The Banana Tree 179
COLLABORATIVE DISCUSSION Think about what happens at the
end of “The Banana Tree.” With a partner, discuss how the storm may
change the relationship between Gustus and his father. Use text
evidence to support your ideas.
echoed everywhere, calling for his boy. He was wrenching
and ripping through the house wreckage when suddenly he
vaguely remembered how the boy had been fussing with the
banana tree. Desperate, the man struggled from the ruins,
f lagging the lantern he carried.
The f lickering light above his head showed Mr. Bass the
forlorn and pitiful banana tree. There it stood, shivering
and twitching like a propped-up man with lacerated throat
and dismembered head. Half of the damaged fruit rested on
Gustus. The father hesitated. But when he saw a feeble wink
of the boy’s eyelids, he f lung himself to the ground. His bristly
chin rubbed the child’s face while his unsteady hand ran
all over his body. “Mi bwoy!” he murmured. “Mi hurricane
bwoy! The Good Lord save you. . . . Why you do this? Why
you do this?”
“I did want buy mi shoes, Pappy. I . . . I can’t go anywhere ’
cause I have no shoes. . . . I didn’ go to school outing at the
factory. I didn’ go to Government House. I didn’ go to Ol’ Fort
Mr. Bass sank into the dirt and stripped himself of his
heavy boots. He was about to lace them to the boy’s feet when
the onlooking men prevented him. He tied the boots together
and threw them over his shoulder.
Gustus’s broken arm was strapped to his side as they
carried him away. Mr. Bass stroked his head and asked how he
felt. Only then grief swelled inside him and he wept.