Captain of the Sleepers
Captain of the Sleepers is a tropical story of secrets and conflicts: familial, sexual, social, political, all intricately tangled up together in the Caribbean islands. It proceeds along parallel timelines, unfolding in the present day and in the 1940s and '50s, switching narrators at times, evoking disturbing events in which North American expatriates, tourists and Marines play key roles. It tells of love, death and a failed revolution.
The novel begins starkly: "I'm in the last place on earth I'd like to be. Waiting for the last person in this life I thought I'd ever see again." The narrator Andrés has come to St. Croix to meet a man he calls the "Captain of the Sleepers," an old friend and enemy from childhood. The two men are at odds over an incident that occurred some fifty years ago. There's a secret something that Andrés saw or did not see or seemed to see, that the Captain admits, but does not admit: "It never happened. . . . Not in the way you imagine.” The Captain, J.T. Bunker, is the son of a man who engineered the U.S. takeover of the Virgin Islands. His father later returned to Maine, but the Captain stayed, eking out a living by flying cargo and passengers around the region, including the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques where he got to know Andrés. Some of his passengers were actually corpses, being ferried home to be buried; bodies that the small boy's parents described to him as merely "sleepers."
The history of the islands will be unfamiliar, perhaps confusing, to many North American readers, but also fascinating. Montero's lyrical prose, full of colors, sounds and smells, brings the reader into close contact with the exotic setting. When the U.S. Navy begins to expropriate land on Vieques for a bombing range, the scene moves from the camp at Montesanto, where displaced women "who'd just given birth died like flies," to the hundreds of American paratroopers practicing their jumps on the beaches to the distressing waves of dead fish, mutilated sharks, even a smashed sea turtle, that wash up on the sands from naval maneuvers offshore.
Amid all the commotion, the novel centers on Andrés and his mother Estela, an enigmatic beauty who says little and never tells her own story in her own words. Readers must try to piece together the fragments other characters contribute, in order to understand Estela's complicated relationships with her son, her husband, her women friends and family, Bunker and Roberto, the doomed leader of a group of Puerto Rican nationalists. Montero’s use of male narrators preserves Estela’s mystery, which is perhaps the author’s goal, but, as a woman reading about a woman in a book by a woman, I felt more than a little cheated of a chance to know Estela from her own perspective. The book is nevertheless intriguing, whether you read it for pleasure on the beach this summer or as an introduction to postcolonial studies when you head back to school this fall.