Unlike Kaye’s other historical novels (The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon, both set in 19th century India), Trade Wind is set in the late 1850s in Zanzibar, off the coast of west Africa. Kaye warns the reader in her foreword that the events of the novel were compressed into one year for the sake of the plot, though they did all happen over the course of a few years in real life. Some of the characters existed in real-life – the Sultan and his siblings, for example – others were based on an amalgum of real people – Dan Larrimore, for example, was based on a number of naval officers of the time – as well as entirely imaginary characters.
Our heroine is Hero Hollis, an American heiress from Boston, brought up in an atmosphere of good works and passionately held beliefs, rigidly certain of her own righteousness, and influenced in her choice of work by a fortune told to her by an old Irish woman when she was a child. After the death of her father (for her mother died when Hero was a child), Hero decides that she must do her good works in Africa, and thus takes up the invitation of a cousin of her father, who is American Consul in Zanzibar, to join him and his family there. Since Hero is engaged to Hollis’ step-son, Clayton Mayo, this provides another inducement for her to join them.
A storm in the Indian Ocean, however, and a near collision with another ship, leads Hero to fall overboard, but luckily she is picked up (not without injury) by the other ship. She discovers that it is captained by the notorious Emory (Rory) Frost – English slaver, smuggler and all-round bad boy – and is forced to stay on board the Virago until Frost completes his fishy business and deigns to return to Zanzibar.
Once arrived in Zanzibar, Hero is greeted with acclamation by her relatives – her uncle Nat, aunt Abigail, cousin Cressida and Clayton – who obviously thought she had been drowned. However, when they learn that she was not picked up by HMS Daffodil, but by the Virago, they are more concerned about Hero’s reputation, and the damage which may be caused to it by having it known that she was on board Frost’s ship, rather than a respectable Naval vessel, than Hero’s own feelings.
The novel then follows – in the main – Hero’s activities, as she gets caught up in rebellion (helping support younger brother Bargash’s attempt to overthrown Sultan Majid), nurses Frost’s daughter through typhoid fever, lives through piracy and abduction, and sets up a hospital to nurse children through an outbreak of cholera which devastates the island. The reader also sees how Frost and Majid get hold of a vast treasure of gold (though cursed by a witch doctor from Pemba, a neighbouring island).
The relationships between the characters are well-drawn, and the characters themselves behave in realistic ways. Hero’s horror of slavery leads her to try to free many, though her naivety leads to her being taken advantage of. Frost’s cynicism contrasts with Hero’s longing to make the world a better place, and neither of them are untouched by their effect on each other. Hero is sometimes irritating, in her assumption of superiority, but she always means well, and she’s tough and strong-minded.
Kaye is particularly good at getting across atmosphere, and she has a feel for how people would have behaved, and spoken and thought – both Arab, African, Briton and American – and the clashes resulting between them because of their differences. Her descriptions of the island are beautiful and exotic, and she has a good feel for the intrigues of the palace, and the politics of the time.
It’s well-worth a read if you can find a copy – I believe it’s currently out of print.