Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (1897) is a great adventure story about a spoiled rich kid, Harvey Cheyne, who falls off an ocean liner and is rescued by the crew of a fishing vessel named the We’re Here. Harvey’s parents believe him dead. On the vessel he learns the meaning of hard work, courage, and danger. He becomes friends with the captain’s young son Dan. Kipling tells a great story, but it’s all on the surface—nothing much beneath. Here we have a Horatio Alger tale in reverse: the spoiled rich kid befriended by the hard working fishermen who teach him how to be a man and help instill life skills. When he returns to land and contacts his parents, they are astounded at what he has done, where he has been, and how he has changed. The distant father recognizes his failures and seeks to bond with the boy. The values of this tale lie in its social point of view: it’s told from the rich boy’s perspective. Wealth is not his problem. His problem is that he is spoiled and doesn’t know how to carry his privilege, how to behave towards others (his inferiors). Underneath it all is the idea that this wealthy child was born for power and wealth, and that he must learn to become the sort of person who can assume his rightful position.

Strengths of this short novel include the colorful, diverse personalities of the men on the vessel and Kipling’s descriptions of the sea. One euphoric passage describes the journey of the boy’s father across the American continent as he travels to meet his lost son. Its breathless descriptions sets the boy’s father up as a Gilded Age tycoon, wielding economic power, standing down adversaries, manipulating workers all to the end of securing a fast and uninterrupted train ride to Boston. Another records the father’s story of his life.

One can’t complain about the story, the prose, the characterizations in Captains Courageous. It’s a grand children’s tale. I would want to have some conversations with young readers about the story’s class-based value system and stereotypical traits in a few of the characters. But these are not issues that need tending to the first time a child reads the story. They can be handled later.

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