Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling (1897)

Not so bad sea story about a boy who falls off a ship and is kidnapped by a nice guy who punches him in the face so he learns some manners.

There you have it, the whole story in a nice little nutshell.  I'm not saying it's a bad book but it did surprise me.  The main premise is exactly as I stated above.  For some reason I pictured the book differently.  I thought it would show a young man becoming heroic.  He learned all about life at sea, that much I did expect, but I just pictured him saving the ship in a storm or something.  I mean, the title is Captains Courageous, don't you think he should have done something courageous?  But all he did was fish a lot.

This book was chatty, as well.  Lots of dialog, lots of shipboard seafaring dialect thrown about in long conversations used to move the story along.  This was a lesson to me, not to do that in my own writing. Perhaps I've used dialog too much to reveal a story.  So I'm glad I see an example of its overuse.  Sometimes you just want the writer to come out and say what the heck is going on.

One thing that bothered me was the captain wouldn't even allow a letter to be sent to the boy's mother so she wouldn't think he drowned at sea.  They try to paint the captain as a nice fellow, but I didn't see that at all.  He saw the boy fall overboard, and then says he has to stay on his boat for months.  I don't know maritime law and maybe kidnapping on the high seas was okay back in the day.  But it didn't sit well with me.  They even made mention of how the boy's mother would be grieving about her child who was drowned, and all the captain had to say was, "Poor woman—poor woman! When she has you back she'll forgit it all, though."  They passed several ships throughout the book which were going in and out of port, but never did they mention passing a letter to any of them.  The captain knew the boy had a mother, he knew she would be grieving, but all he cared about was getting another hand.

I'm not saying Harvey, the boy, didn't need a good come-uppance.  We're all glad to see it made a man out of him.  But in reality I don't think that would happen at all.

The entire transformation happened in one single moment at the beginning of the book.  When the captain punched Harvey in the face, he instantly became the character he was at the end of the book.  He was a contrite, hard worker.  That is the main problem with the book.  It was not a slow transformation into a man as he helped his shipmates in their struggle with the sea.  No, it was a one punch knockout.

There were some good scenes when they met up with other boats at a favorite fishing ground.  The interaction of the men was interesting.  At first you wondered if they were all enemies, willing to kill each other over fish like pirates.  We found none of that.  They were more like competitors - not friendly competitors, because their livelihood depended on it, but still friendly enough that they don't wish to harm one another.

A favorite, gruesome scene was when Harvey and Dan, the captain's son, were out fishing alone.  They pulled up the line and there was a dead man on the end.  He had been buried at sea a few days before, and Dan had bought his knife at auction - as if the dead man were coming to claim it.

Rudyard Kipling obviously did his homework.  He has the dialect down, and the descriptions of life aboard a fishing boat are perfect.  He also gives wonderful descriptions of seafaring lore.  But the dialect often weighs the story down, since it's hard to read.  But on the plus side it gave the story life.  It didn't feel like a dead thing, you got to know the characters and understand them, when you could understand what they were saying.

The end dragged on far too long.  After they returned to port, the parents were finally notified and they came out, met the captain, lived in the village for a time, and on and on.  I don't know what Kipling had in mind by keeping the story going for so long.  Maybe to give us a glimpse not just of the life of mariners but of their families back home.  Many Victorian novels go so far to wrap everything up in a nice little bundle that they prolong the ending.  I'll try not to do that with this review.

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