Jemmy Button tells the story of a young boy from a faraway, tropical island, who is taken to England to be “civilized” and the book illustrates his encounters with a strange new world and his decision to return home.
Jemmy Button is based on the true story of Orundellico, a native of Tierra del Fuego, who was taken to England in the early 1800s by Captain Robert FitzRoy, in order to be educated in Christianity and the ways of Western world. Jemmy is named for the mother-of-pearl button that the captain gives in exchange for him. But several years later, he returned to Tierra del Fuego with the captain on the HMS Beagle, accompanied by a young Charles Darwin. Upon reaching the island, he quickly shed the clothing and trappings of Victorian England and relearned his native language.
However, the book is not so much a biography, as a representation of this terribly alienating experience from Jemmy’s point of view. The lyrical prose (The British explorers tell Jemmy, “Come away with us and taste our language, see the lights of our world”) is complemented by beautifully imagined illustrations. The first thing that struck me about this book was the cover, with its bold, simplistic design and Jemmy’s little face peeking curiously out from the tangle of greenery. It made me curious to discover Jemmy Button’s story. Throughout the story, he is painted with red ochre skin and curly black hair, and he walks naked through crowds of overdressed silhouettes in shades of blue and black. He is bought clothes, taken to concerts, and even meets royalty, but he never feels at home.
“Jemmy felt almost at home. Almost, but not quite.”
After experiencing all these new places, he realizes where he truly belongs and decides to return home. The illustrations are rudimentary and unsophisticated – and very powerful. Jemmy stands out in every illustration – he is often painted in a more childlike way, with blurred lines and messy hair, whereas the English men and women he is surrounded by are painted much more deliberately.
The story explores themes of travel, homesickness, longing, and diversity. In today’s multicultural environment, this book is particularly appropriate. It teaches us the dangers of treating those who are different as inferior and the insensitivity of attempting to impose one’s culture on others.
Jennifer Uman is a self-taught painter and illustrator and Valerio Vidali is an Italian illustrator of magazines and children’s books. Historical notes are available at the end of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for Jemmy Button.