Thursday, April 10, 2014

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (14 of 159)

Book covers of this type always make me wonder
 if they were painting from wooden models
One-Sentence Summary: The insufferably spoiled Harvey Cheyne topples off of his cruise-liner and into the lives of his rough fishermen saviors, only to be transformed by the manly virtue of their craft.

“It was the forty-fathom slumber that clears the soul and eye and heart, and sends you to breakfast ravening. They emptied a big tin dish of juicy fragments of fish- the blood-ends the cook had collected overnight. They cleaned up the plates and pans of the elder mess, who were out fishing, sliced pork for the midday meal, swabbed down the foc'sle, filled the lamps, drew coal and water for the cook, an investigated the fore-hold, where the boat's stores were stacked. It was another perfect day - soft, mild and clear; and Harvey breathed to the very bottom of his lungs.” 

Teddy Roosevelt was probably all over this book. It was definitely designed to be read by people like this:
Ten bucks says that backdrop is painted.
Not that this was an uncommon audience. Kipling wrote in a time when men were men and boys beat each other up over damaging repressed emotions and daddy issues (but valiantly). I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the turn of the century's boy adventure story genre. One has to be sensitive to the times in which they were written- but Captains Courageous is a whole 'nother story. Robert Louis Stevenson was a contemporary of Kipling's, and while I would have loved to put them in one room to have it out over the treatment of island natives, let's focus on a comparison of their literary work. Where I find that Treasure Island reads as a pure adventure story, Captains Courageous can come across as a bit heavy-handed. Harvey begins the story by being characterized as effeminate and spoiled, a spiney little mother's boy who generally drives others mad with his demanding behavior. He ends it as the ideal son- quiet, composed, just in ways both economical and moral, and smelling ripely of cod. It's a little too clear cut of a moral taleI was glad to say that Harvey was not impervious to weakness- Kipling may have seen Harvey going the way of the flawless convert and so throws in a fainting spell for good measure. Good work, Rudyard. Crisis averted. More than anything, this is just a reminder to take moral character tales of the time with a grain of salt. Or, you know, a whole ocean of it.

I don't want you to think that I didn't enjoy Captains Courageous. I am a huge geek for good naval yarns and history. I like to stand waste-deep in boat jargon and sit down to cramped dinners with swarthy mixed bags of callused crew. As a matter of a fact, reading this instilled in me the strong desire to re-read Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea, simultaneously. Good thing Melville's White Jacket is on my shelf, just waiting for its turn in The Great Book Liberation Project. I'm an ocean girl and I always have been. There may be a bit of the selkie in me yet. Kipling captured my favorite elements of the sea story with passion and precision- the fresh air, the colors of the Atlantic, the sense of unbridled curiosity for a secretive and ancient force. I actually stayed up until 12:30, totally immersed in the very satisfying conclusion of the little story. I don't know if Captain's Courageous is as deep as its main subject, but it is still fun and full of little jewels of description and character. 

Shelf Status: Being released to the great and bounding main
You May Enjoy Captains Courageous If You Enjoyed: Moby Dick, Treasure Island, In the Heart of the Sea

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