Monday, March 3, 2008

Rudyard Kipling

Captains Courageous
by Rudyard Kipling
Recommended Age: 10+

Kipling, as you probably know, was a British author with strong ties to India. But you may not know that he married an American woman and wrote some of his best-loved works while living in Vermont, USA. This book in particular was inspired by the deep-sea fisherman of the New England seaboard. And it is yet another "adventure at sea" that I recommend to lovers of magical worlds, on the rationale that the sea is very much another world, strange and even magical to many of us. Certainly the vocabulary of fishing and boats is challenging and mysterious to the newly initiated, but I think many of you (boys especially) could find it a very exciting, even addicting subject. And there are other sorts of magic in this story, too - a bit of voodoo, a bit of prophecy, and a good deal about the superstitions and ghostly tales and eerie experiences that men of the sea share.

Kipling introduces us to this magical world through the character of Harvey Cheyne. Harvey is the spoiled-brat son of an American railway tycoon (year: 1896). When Harvey falls overboard off a big luxury steamer, he is rescued by a fisherman and nursed back to health on the schooner We're Here. Her skipper is a burly Gloucester, Massachusetts-based cod fisherman named Disko Troop, whose son Dan becomes Harvey's best friend. But before Harvey can be much more than a hindrance to everybody, he has to learn some lessons and some discipline-- and Troop is just the man to provide it. For starters, when Harvey orders Troop to turn the boat around and take him back to New York, Troop decks him.

This knuckle-sandwich proves to be a life-changing moment for young Harvey, who soon adapts to the discipline of a fishing schooner, bonds with its hands, and makes his own contribution to their fishing expedition. Along the way he encounters the joys and heartbreaks of life at sea, witnesses tragedies and triumphs, and learns to appreciate people like Long Jack and Tom Platt, Uncle Salters and Penn, Manuel and the mysterious cook with his spooky, prophetic trance.

What makes this a typical Kipling story is that he zooms in on the traditions, the spoken language, and the way of life of a fascinating, noble, but little-thought-of tribe. In this case, though, the tribe is deep sea fishermen, who come together from different cultures but share in a common culture on the seas around Nova Scotia. And again, it is a depiction of a fading way of life, preserved in loving and colorful detail by a master of language and observation.

Unfortunately, Kipling is not quite the master of story-telling that say, J.K. Rowling is. What Kipling describes, he describes with haunting beauty. But the story he tells is marred by structural weakness. To be specific, the "crisis" of the story comes too soon, and is resolved too quickly, too easily. I enjoyed the book so much-- indeed, I might even say I loved it-- that I couldn't help regretting that Kipling didn't pace himself better, and draw out the development of Harvey Cheyne with better timing. It makes you appreciate the gift of storytelling that Rowling displays in her Harry Potter books, quite apart from the "way with words" in which Kipling runs circles around her. She has more of an instinct for shaping the drama of the story to fit its dimensions, to keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat until quite near the end.

Still, this remains an excellent sea adventure, with a bit of a railroad adventure at the end (complete with a demonstration of American capitalist philosophy at its peak-- comparable to Kipling's typically rosy depiction of the noble British empire and its manifest destiny). Okay, so the politics that Kipling expresses are a bit faded and out of date, but they are only part of the story - not the other way around.

There is a classic movie based on this book, starring Spencer Tracy who won an Oscar for his performance. Once you read the book, I think you'll look forward to your chance to see the film, as I do.

The Jungle Book
by Rudyard Kipling
Recommended Age: 10+

Kipling wrote this book in 1894 while living in India. Born to British parents in Bombay, he was raised and educated in England, and lived in England most of his life; but he spent many of his happiest years in India. The Jungle Book and its sequel, The Second Jungle Book, are testimonies to his fascination with the legends and natural wonders of the Subcontinent.

The chief thread in The Jungle Book is the myth of the wild boy, raised by animals in the jungle. In this case the wild boy is Mowgli, who as an infant (or, "man-cub") strays from his village and ends up being raised by a family of wolves, like one of their own pups. The growing boy survives the malice of the great tiger Shere-Khan and the wiles of the serpent Kaa, by a combination of his own pluck and cleverness, the protection of his wolf brethren, and the friendship of the bear Baloo and the black panther Bagheera. He learns to hunt, fight, go to ground, and be careful of the wicked monkeys. He also returns to civilization for a while - just long enough to learn who his true family is, and where true civilization lies. And he vanquishes his greatest enemy.

Not all of The Jungle Book is the story of Mowgli, however. In and amongst the many poems and songs that Kipling lavishes on us, there is the adventure of a young white seal who searches for a safe place for his people to mate... the battle between the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and a nest of cobras... the secret dance of the elephants, ever seen by only one human being, and that a boy... and the boasting rivalry of the pack-animals of Her Majesty's forces in India, which brings the book to an ironic close.

Children of all ages will love to read these stories and have them read to them. If you've only seen the Disney animated feature, but have never read the book, you don't know what you've missed! Here is a kind of magic that, to us, is very strange and foreign; for it is not only the magic of a strange and faraway land, but also of a time that is no more. American children will not be as quick to understand and identify with the settings and characters, because (unlike British children) India and the Empire are not part of their nation's history or their cultural background. For us children of the Rebels, the Jungle Books will always have the same fascination as any story of exotic climates, cultures, and myths, or any story that depicts man's relationship with nature from nature's point of view.

The Jungle Book II
by Rudyard Kipling
Recommended Age: 10+

The second Jungle Book carries on in the same vein as the first, with a mixture of songs and stories that are mostly concerned with Mowgli, the jungle boy raised by wolves and loved by a bear, a panther, and a python. For the most part these stories carry Mowgli's story further toward manhood, and the end of his adventures in the forests of India. There is the story of How Fear Came, though, which takes place before the slaying of Shere Khan in the first book. These stories vary in tone from a kind of animal fable (similar to the story of Cain and Abel) to the down-to-earth seriousness of a battle with wild dogs and the stirrings of nature as a boy grows into a man.

There are also several stand-alone stories, including an account of a westernized Hindu politician who turns his back on all that he has accomplished, takes up a beggar's bowl, and becomes a wandering holy man - a theme Kipling returned to in his colorful novel of espionage, culture, and coming-of-age, Kim. And another favorite is the story of the Eskimo boy Kotuko, who saves his village from starvation.

Kipling's admiration for people with a rooted culture, a hardy character, and a simple lifestyle is evident in these stories, as well as his love for the natural world especially of his native India. My edition of TJB2 includes a sort of apology from the editor, Jane Yolen, who seems to view Kipling's brief lapses into British-Empire-era chauvinism as a sin that needs to be excused, though some of the things she took at face value, I thought Kipling said in an ironic way. Whatever your views may be on the political incorrectness of Victorian imperial policy, I don't think you'll have much to hold against Kipling, who (again) like his own Kim is a "friend of all the world."

Just So Stories
by Rudyard Kipling
Recommended Age: 6+

From the same creative mind that brought us the exotic tales of The Jungle Books, comes this collection of amusing and enlightening stories for very small children. Told with warmth and affection, they combine tales of deepest, darkest Africa, with glimpses of India and the ancient Middle-East, a touch of Australia, and even some fetching stories of prehistoric cave-people. Learn "how the Whale got his Throat," "how the Camel got his Hump," "how the Rhinoceros got his Skin," "How the First Letter was Written," "How the Alphabet was Made," and other useful lessons, told with a whimsical twinkle-in-the-eye. Lovers of puzzles can try and puzzle out a translation of the Runes around a magic tusk. And lovers of sweetly ironic stories will find simple pleasure in such masterpieces as "The Butterfly that Stamped."

by Rudyard Kipling
Recommended Age: 12+

If you've ever seen a spy thriller (as a movie), or read one (as a book), you may have encountered a fascinating little training exercise known as Kim's Game. Basically, it's an exercise in noticing as much as possible at a glance. If you can look for one second at an assortment of objects and then describe them with precision and accuracy, you may be a good spy. It's both a test and a tool to build your powers of observation and recall. The reason it's called Kim's Game is that it comes from this 1901 book, which is partly an espionage thriller, but mostly a love story between a boy of British extraction and his native land, India.

Kim, the "little friend of all the world," is a British orphan boy running around wild in the Indian city of Lahore in about 1900. He rubs elbows with Muslims, Hindus, and all kinds of sects and ethnic groups. Being small and fleet of foot, he carries out little missions of intrigue - smuggling, messengering, even a little espionage.

Soon Kim is being groomed to be a real spy, while going to an expensive school and (later) following a Tibetan lama on a pilgrimage. In between dangerous tight spots and crafty adventures, Kim grows to love his master, and to be loved in return. And through their eyes, you see a kaleidoscope of colorful people, strange and exotic places and customs, often conflicting but sometimes complementary lines of loyalty and interest, and the coming of age of an appealing young hero whose special gift is "to be all things to all people."

To read this book, you must be open to receiving a whole new vocabulary, and ready to learn about the far-out concepts of different cultures and religions at a point in history when the British Empire was at its peak. You may, of course, question the religious convictions (or lack of them) that Kipling preaches, but many of us could stand to model our approach to foreign cultures on his respectful, even admiring, attitude. The richness of their tradition, and the variety of traditions intermingled, described by a gifted writer who could have aced Kim's Game any day of the week, makes Kim simply a feast for the senses.

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