Kim (1901), by Rudyard Kipling

12 February 2014

KiplingIn 1901, Rudyard Kipling published his last text dealing with British India. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “… i betrakfande af den iaktfagelseförmåga, den ursprungliga inbillningskraft samt den manliga styrka i uppfaffning och skildringskonst, som utmårka denne världsberömde forfaffares skapelser.” (“… on account of the great power of observation, the original conception and also the virile comprehension and art of narration that distinguishes his literary creations.”)  (Nobel Prize Citation).

Kipling-coverKim is arguably Kipling’s only successful full-length novel: The Light that Failed (1890) was a notable critical failure; the moderately more successful The Naulakha (1892) was co-authored with his fiancée’s brother, Wolcott Balestier; Stalky & Co. (1899), is a short-story cycle. Attitudes toward the novel have changed drastically over the years. The basic progression of critical response is that Kim was initially heralded as “the only memorable novel inspired by the subcontinent” (Rubin 14), then derided as the work of a “colonial and a racist” (Murari, qtd. in Moore-Gilbert Kipling 42), and is now back in the spotlight as fundamental to a comprehension of India, and what it is to be Indian (Moore-Gibert, “I am”). This was evident when I tried to teach Kim at the university level: the responses ranged from adoration to derision by way of incomprehension. It surprised me greatly that the language of the novel would be beyond third-year students, but there it is. Those who did complete the novel either loved it or were offended by the Victoria attitudes therein. Still, it remains one of my favourite novels for children, in the august company of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1875), L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars (1976-79) series (can we count Lord of the Rings as children’s books? And there are certainly others…)


Kim and his Lama, from a carving by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling

So what is it that makes Kim stand out from Kipling’s other works, from other children’s novels of Empire, or indeed most of children’s literature at the time? For me, it is partially the large cast of fully developed characters, all balanced by their various relationships with the central figure, young Kimball O’Hara. It is partially, too, the deep understanding Kipling has of the land that Kim travels through, and the intrigue of The Great Game that is played there: the contest between Russia and England for control over (uncontrollable) Central Asia. Kipling’s inclusion of historical facts is not great, but his knowledge of the country, the cultures, and the political machinations of the British Empire in India certainly is. Kim has a boys’-own flare without the overt jingoism that accompanies so many texts of Empire, especially at the turn of the 20th century. Not only are the characters in Kim carefully and deeply crafted, but Kipling presents a vast array of religions and cultures, all treated with the same balance between humour and respect. While the Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is a source of comedy, he is also a loyal friend, and an effective and dedicated spy for the British government. The Afghani Mahbub Ali, too, is presented with respect for his strength (of both body and character) and his unquestionable affection for Kim. The Buddhist Teshoo Lama, both naïve and holy, is perhaps the most revered of characters—by both Kim and Kipling. The other two religious figures—the Anglican Reverend Arthur Bennett and the Catholic Father Victor—are presented without excessive disparagement, given their [in Kim’s view] unhelpful desires to educate Kim in the ways of their separate religions. Kipling’s “fallen” women—the formidable Woman of Shamlegh, who is “Lispeth” in Kipling’s earlier story of that name; the widowed Woman of Kulu who heals Kim; and the Shimla prostitute who helps Kim disguise himself—are all presented as essentially moral, strong women—a representation not accorded many fictional women, of any ethnicity, at the time. Character, plot, and setting weave together in an irresistible narrative web. We come to love both Kim and his Lama, to respect the integrity and loyalty of all the players of the Great Game. If there is an underlying imperialist self-aggrandisment (which I cannot deny), it is (in my opinion) forgivable as a representation of the real ethos of British India at the time.


Moore-Gilbert, B. J.  Kipling and “Orientalism. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Moore-Gilbert, Bart J. “I am Going to Rewrite Kipling’s Kim: Kipling and Postcolonialism.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.2 (2002): 39-58.

Rubin, David.  After the Raj: British Novels of India Since 1947.  Hanover & London: UP of New England, 1986.

Huenemann, Karyn. “From Lispeth to The Woman of Shamlegh: Rudyard Kipling, India, and Indian Women.” IUP Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1.1 (2009): 22-46.

The Sower of Tales (2001), by Rachna Gilmore

Gilmore-SowerI have recently given a guest lecture on Children’s Literature of the South Asian diaspora, and I closed with a discussion of Rachna Gilmore’s The Sower of Tales. The class I spoke to was about to begin an investigation of Salmon Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), focusing on its metafictive elements, and Sower of Tales seemed to me to be a perfect text to launch them into the more complex metaphors that Rushdie employs.

The Sower of Tales presents a similar concept—the need for stories in our lives, the death of the imagination equated with the death of happiness—but to a younger, less intellectually mature readership. By this I do not intend to denigrate Sower of Tales; there is absolutely a place for both expressions of this theme within the corpus.

The metaphor that Sower of Tales presents is that of stories as a gift from the Sower, grown bi-weekly on plants scattered about the land. The Gatherer is responsible for choosing an appropriate “story pod” for the evening Talemeet for his or her village. The ripe pods give off a hum, and a talented Gatherer can tell from the hum what tone of story is therein contained. Our protagonist, Calantha, shows great promise as a Gatherer, but is too young yet to apprentice. Nonetheless, when tragedy strikes and new story pods no longer sprout, Calantha is chosen to make the dangerous journey to seek the Sower of Tales, to help right the imbalance in the world that has caused the blight.

When she reaches her destination, she is harrowed to find that the answers are not readily available. The Sower of Tales is losing her power, and can no longer heal herself: she needs Calantha to make another, more dangerous, journey. Calantha learns that an evil sorcerer has twisted the Essences, knotted the winds so that the new seeds that rise out of opened pods, up to the Sower of Tales, are diverted to the neighbouring kingdom. The significance of this is that in Gilmore’s fantasy world, the stories are power, as much as they are a life-force, and the source of culture and tradition.

The Healer Theora tells Calantha that “the Essence of the story pods is tied to the very fabric of our beings” (136), and the Sower of Tales, telling her how story pods first came into being, tells her:

Tales grow, with a life of their own. Words and ideas are like seeds. … the Essence of the story pods comes from the oldest and most powerful of all Essences—the life-spark, the Essence of creation itself. … And so, over time, the Essence of the tales enmeshed and interwove with all the other Essences linked to that life-spark, strengthening them, too—strengthening unity and love, joy and creativity and hope. (231-33).

The corollary is that without the story pods, the world will be blanketed in despair, like the poisoning of the Rushdie’s Sea of Stories… In the final scenes, in a flash of insight, Calantha understands:

The Plainsfolk must, they must learn to tell the tales. Tales from the story pods, yes, but more—they must also learn to tell their own tales. Mend their own hope, stoke their own strength. Oh, they must learn to tell their own tales to fuel their own joy and delight … And when the story pods returned—if the story pods returned—they must still keep telling their tales. That was how the tales would be saved. It was the only way the tales would be saved. (416)

The Sower of Tales can be seen as representing the birth of an oral tradition: stories are no longer given to the people by magical beings, but now must be created by the people, for the people: humanity in Gilmore’s fantasy world has now taken responsibility for its own happiness or despair, its own future narrative.

Monsoon Summer (2004), by Mitali Perkins

In Monsoon Summer (2004), Mitali Perkins has created a delightful tale of a young girl’s discovery of who she is—ethnically, psychologically, and emotionally—during a summer work-holiday in India.  “Jazz” (Jasmine Carol Gardner) is a budding entrepreneur with confidence issues; a serious crush on her long-time friend and business partner, Steve Morales; an award winning shot-put throw; a reclusive, computer-geek father; and a gorgeous, petite Indian mother whom she does not physically resemble in any way.  Her visit to India, while her mother establishes a clinic for new mothers at the orphanage where she was abandoned as an infant, provides Jazz time away from the structured—albeit TV- and car-less—existence that she depends on.  Through her friendships with both the rich Indian girls at an exclusive school in Pune and the intelligent and determined orphan Danita, Jazz learns how others see her, and the relationship between inner self and outer presentation. Introspection and compassion vie with insecurity and doubt as Jazz slowly develops her own sense of self within both her family and the Asha Bari Orphanage community.
The narrative is presented through Jazz’s eyes, as is common in YA novels, yet Jazz’s awareness of her parents’ lives and emotions allows the reader to experience the angst that her mother feels, having been abandoned by a woman so very much like those she is striving to help in her clinic.  Sharing in her mother’s work for the first time, and seeing her erstwhile reclusive father do so as well, brings a new perspective to Jazz’s vision of self and family.  In the end, her business venture’s “Rule Number Eight: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” (243) takes on new meaning for Jazz: not only in business—which she understands intuitively—but in the confusion of life, risk-taking is sometimes essential for success.

The Joyous Story of Astrid (1931), by L. Adams Beck

In my other life, I work for the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project, headed by Dr. Carole Gerson at Simon Fraser University.  The project aims to construct an online database of all Canadian women who published—in any genre, in any forum—before 1950.  CEWW is one of the seed projects for the larger database project, the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), run out of the University of Alberta, and headed by Dr. Susan Brown.

Connecting my love of early Canadian literature with my love of children’s literature, I have been reading through the children’s texts written by some of our authors, with the intent of sharing them—if only superficially—with others.  The first such text was The Bells on Finland Street, by Lyn Cook.

The Joyous Story of Astrid (1931)

“L. Adams Beck” is one of the three pseudonyms used by Elizabeth Louisa Moresby Beck; the others are “E. Barrington,” which she used for historical fictional biography, and “Louis Moresby,” which she used for non-fiction. Beck was from a prominent British imperial family, and travelled extensively in the Orient before settling in Victoria, BC. Moresby Island, a part of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, is named after her paternal grandfather.  The pseudonym “L. Adams Beck” was used primarily for writings dealing with Eastern mysticism and religion, which she studied intently. The Joyous Story of Astrid, while not predominantly religious or philosophical, does present tales from Asian traditions to the young Canadian reader.

I must admit that I am generally skeptical about the quality of many novels for children written in the early twentieth century: so many of them are trite and prescriptive at best, and positively controlling at worst (wait for my upcoming review of Little Gray Doors [1926], by Alexandrina Woods). The Joyous Story of Astrid, however, delighted me in its freshness, its lack of prescriptive condescension, and its healthy representation of an eschatology that differs from the prevailing Christian notions of Heaven and Hell.  The writing style is somewhat dated, unsurprisingly, but I would still heartily recommend the text to young readers today. My only regret is perhaps that it does not actually present a philosophical belief to young readers; I think Beck would be admirable proponent of a more explicit message, so balanced is her presentation in this short story cycle.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a short story cycle is a collection of short stories contained within an over-arching narrative frame; the stories and the frame narrative together construct the whole of the narrative. In The Joyous Story of Astrid, we are introduced to Astrid, a “moon-child” as she is born beneath a full moon right on the stroke of midnight. Thus, she belongs to the Moon Goddess, and sleeps all day, coming out to frolic with her nocturnal friends in the forest at night. By and by, the Moon Goddess tells her stories of her own life, as well as the lives of children and animals and mythical creatures in other lands: China, Japan, India… lands where the people believe in the magic Astrid lives by. The stories themselves are delightful, although interrupted perhaps too much by the narrative frame plot in which the Mr. Mouse and the Mouse Queen orchestrate the marriage of the Mouse Princess, with the help of Astrid and her wish-dog, Jock.

As Astrid learns more about “true dreaming” and the creation of “mind-flowers,” she learns more about “The Back of Beyond,” the place where all knowledge will be acquired. Initially, this seems to be a metaphor for the Christian Heaven, but by the end of the text, Astrid and Jock cross the “Cold River” and enter the Back of Beyond, where “they were slowly beginning to see that a wonderful new story, which yet was the old story too, was starting for them, exactly as when the daffodil bulb hidden underground sends up a golden flower into the sunshine” (281-2). The Back of Beyond is a magical place, where the gods and fictional characters are real, where there is no need of houses or protection, where maturity and vision have been achieved and the toil and hardship of life falls away: a nirvana for children, presented in a simple and powerfully enticing way.