Posted in Fiction

“…the ghost of a dry smile…”

Captains Courageous is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Rudyard Kipling.  I think it’s possible he could become a favorite.  I say full-length, but it was only 144 pages.

Harvey Cheyne, the son of a millionaire (i.e., spoiled brat), falls off a luxury liner in the Atlantic Ocean after he gets sick from smoking a cigar.   Manuel, a sailor on the We’re Here, a Gloucester schooner, rescues him and brings him aboard his ship.  After Harvey has “words” with the Captain of the ship, Disko Troop (a great name!), he realizes that his life has been saved and that his attitude probably won’t get him very far, he apologizes to the Captain and jumps in as a helping hand.  He befriends the Captain’s son, Dan, and learns the ropes (literally, sometimes).  Harvey ultimately earns the respect of the crew, a handful of colorful characters.  He realizes that the work of a sailor is a work worth doing.

During Harvey’s apology to Disko Troop, Kipling writes that Disko gave Harvey “the ghost of a dry smile”.  I liked the way Kipling used this phrase to imply both the fondness Disko felt for Harvey and his unwillingness for Harvey to see that fondness – at least not right away.

When Harvey eventually returns to his parents, his father reacts to the changes in Harvey in a rather surprised manner.  He hadn’t recalled seeing Harvey with such a sparkle in his eye.  I don’t think hard work was the only lesson Harvey learned.  It seemed that he was affected just as much by the adventurous life of the crew of the We’re Here.   Harvey’s father tells the story of his climb to the top of a major railroad company as one of heading west, sleeping in desserts, encountering all types of people, fighting criminals – a similarly adventurous life.  One he hadn’t realized his son was missing out on.

Many conversations took place on the We’re Here.  One aspect of the novel that could frustrate readers is that the speaking voices of the crew were written exactly like they talk.  I think this is called “eye dialect”.

One of the deeper conversations among the men on the We’re Here revolved around the role of The Sea in their lives.  They seemed to come to an odd, but probably right, conclusion that while The Sea could not be controlled and that their work and livelihood could be wiped out with one violent storm, it did not mean that they stopped doing what they were doing.  At the same time, they could not put too much faith in their work and jobs, because at any moment The Sea could destroy it all.  Living with this tension perhaps was the key to their enjoyment of this life and adventure.

This is the only Kipling novel that takes place in and around the United States.  I’m interested in reading his novel, Kim, in the near future.

Has anyone out there read anything else by Kipling?

3 thoughts on ““…the ghost of a dry smile…”

  1. I haven’t read a lot of Kipling, but what I have read has not yet failed to disappoint me. I have a book of his short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills, in my sights for 2011. I’ve never read Captains Courageous, though, and your post has made me want to.

    It’s coincidental that I just read Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, which also involves a shipwrecked “child” (well not literally a child in that case) of privilege forced to grow into more of a “man.”

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