Posted in Short Stories

” ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, go back to the Woods again…’ “

I’ve only read one of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories, so far,  but I get the idea from this one that they are similar in nature to a Greek myth or to one of Aesop’s fables.  They are not very long and they tend to provide an explanation for “how things are” or “how things came to be”.

“The Cat That Walked By Himself”  is a smart and funny story that anyone who has had any experience with cats will understand and appreciate.  It takes place somewhere around the beginning of time, or at least early in time, before many of the domesticated animals we have today were domesticated.  The Dog, Cow, Horse and Cat were still considered “wild”.  Actually, Man was still considered “wild”.  Guess who had to come along and “tame” him?  Yeah, that’s right – Woman.  The Dog, Cow and Horse all make a visit to the Woman (the Man is out hunting – he hasn’t been completely tamed!) and decide that domesticity isn’t such a bad thing – the woman makes a deal with them and the three of them end up becoming the Woman and Man’s friends and servants.

During these dealings, the Cat continues to be the Cat that walks by himself.  He has no intentions of giving in to the Woman’s requests and becoming domesticated.  The Woman tells him “Wild Thing out of the Woods, go back to the Woods again…”.   The Cat then makes his own “bet” with the Woman.  One in which the Woman loses and the Cat gets to hang out by the Woman’s fire and drink milk and generally slink around the Cave (The Man and Woman still live in a Cave).

The question that has to be asked after reading this story is “Who is the real winner of this bet”?  While the Cat does not crave domesticity, he ends up looking as though he has been domesticated, although it’s on his terms and not the Woman’s.  Intriguing.

Posted in Fiction

“Who had decided this, and what for?”

I just finished reading Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.  While Rosnay’s writing style didn’t blow me away, the story and the structure of the novel made it worth reading.  The chapters of the book are each very short – I usually call these books “airplane” books.

For about half of the book, the chapters alternate between a ten-year old Jewish girl in France, Sarah and an American journalist living in Paris in the present day, Julia.  In July of 1942, Sarah is rounded up with her family and taken to a detainment camp in France where they would eventually be shipped off to Auschwitz.  When the French police come to get her family, she locks her four-year old brother in a secret cupboard promising him she will be back.  In the present day, Julia is writing a story about the “round up” in Paris during the war.  She also happens to be moving in to the same apartment Sarah and her family were forced out of.

Sarah and Julia’s stories soon connect.  As Julia’s marriage falls apart, she begins to unravel the horror of what Sarah and her family went through.  Sarah’s secret connects to secrets of Julia’s family.  These secrets are revealed half-way through the novel, making the second half a little anti-climactic.

One aspect of de Rosnay’s writing that was slightly irritating was her insistance on her characters continually asking questions (to the reader, I guess) that didn’t need to be asked.  However, when Sarah begins to realize what is happening to her and her family and why, she asks a powerfully understated question “Who had decided this, and what for?”.

Posted in Fiction

“…the wild, fierce prayers rising into a flame-lapped sky.”

When two worlds collide into respect, friendship and love, it can make for a great story.  When two worlds are torn apart by prejudice and fear, it can make for a tragic story (but still a great one).  Geraldine Brooks’ novel, Caleb’s Crossing, becomes both of these by the end.

Set in Great Harbor on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1660’s, the story is told by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a missionary intent on “civilizing” the Native Americans of the area.  While she is young, she befriends a boy of the Wopanaak tribe living on the same island.  She ultimately names him Caleb while he calls her Storm Eyes.  Going against her father’s wishes, she is fascinated by secretly watching the religious rites of Caleb’s tribe which she describes as “the wild, fierce prayers rising into the flame-lapped sky.”  She finds these celebrations in great contrast to the seemingly dour version of Christianity with which she is being raised.

Bethia’s independence and intelligence is both a curse and a blessing to her well-meaning father for the time period in which they live.  He fears letting her learn too much even though he knows how bright she is.  Bethia is left to learn on her own however she can manage.  Usually her education takes place by overhearing lessons being taught to the boys of her village.   Ultimately, circumstances allow for her father to teach several of the Native American boys including Caleb.  Caleb becomes an excellent student and the Missionary Society that supports Bethia’s father pays for him to attend Harvard University on the mainland.  Bethia accompanies Caleb to Harvard as an indentured servant.

Some interesting aspects of the novel come in the character of Bethia’s father.  While by today’s standards he might be considered mis-guided in some of his actions, he truly is wanting to help the island tribe and acknowledges that he and his people can learn from the Wopanaaks.  He sees the possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship and casts out any idea of  conquering the tribe for monetary benefit (a thought others on the island frequently consider).

Bethia’s intrigue in the ways of the Wopanaaks open up to her questions about the ways of her religion; however, she never really abandons the faith with which she was raised.  Although in the final pages of the novel, at risk of heresy and blasphemy, she resorts to the Wopanaak’s spiritual ways in order to assist Caleb.

The relationship between Caleb and Bethia never becomes romantic in nature. They remain fast friends.  Bethia is fortunate enough to marry a man who respects her independence and intelligence.

Much of the novel is uplifting, particularly many of the relationships between the English and the Wopanaaks; however, the fear, prejudice and greed eventually take over making the story a “dissonant and tragical lament” as Bethia states in the final words of the novel.

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, a story of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  After reading Caleb’s Crossing, I think March will rise to the top of my reading list.

Posted in Short Stories

“…back to the place whence his soul had come.”

One of the many reasons I like reading is to be able to experience something that maybe I wouldn’t be able to otherwise…like a different culture or a different time period.  Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat” did just that.  With beautiful prose, it whisked me away to an India caught between English rule and Hindu beliefs.

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Purun Dass grew up within India’s Hindu culture, but believed that society was changing and if he was to get anywhere, he needed to get on board with the English way of doing things.  He didn’t completely give up his Hindu beliefs, but kept them somewhat quiet.  As a result, he was able to rise in the ranks of the English-controlled Indian government.  He even became Prime Minister of one of India’s States.  At a point in time, when Purun Dass was at his most prominent, he “died”.

While many within the government and many of those he governed may have thought he actually died, Purun really decided to leave his world of achievement in order to get “back to the place whence his soul had come”.   He left most of his worldly possessions to travel through the small, poorer villages of India.  In finding a final destination, he settles on the top of a mountain in a small hut that oversees a village.  The villagers decide that he is a holy man and rename him Purun Bhagat.  Both the villagers and the animals of the forest become his friends or “brothers”.

In being in tune again with the animals and nature, his instinct tells him that a rainstorm will end with a tragic mudslide destroying the village.  He uses his “leadership skills” to travel to the village with his animal friends to warn the villagers of the impending doom.  The villagers leave and are saved (though their homes are not).

The relationhip between Purun Bhagat and his animal friends was the most fascinating part of the story.  Animals seem to play a large part in Kipling’s writing.  While they may be a little more anthropomorphic than Jack London’s animals, Kipling still seems to have the same type of respect and awe for the natural world.

The contrast between the English government and the Hindu culture was done in a manner that seemed more complimentary than adversarial- neither culture was made out to be the “bad guy”.  While one had the upper hand in power, the other had the upper hand in spirituality.

If Kiplings other stories are as wonderful as this one, I can’t wait to read more.

Posted in Fiction

“…oppressed by the primal melancholy of his race.”

Much of Jack London’s writing prompts me to think about the differences between animals and humans.  None of his characters have made me think about this so much as Wolf Larsen in London’s novel, The Sea Wolf. 

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Larsen is the Captain of a seal-hunting schooner called the Ghost.  Reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous, The Sea Wolf tells the tale of Humphrey Van Weyden, a learned man of privilege who is abandoned by his luxury liner and picked up (and saved) by Wolf Larsen’s ship.  As with Kipling’s novel, Van Weyden learns “the ropes” of seafaring, something he never dreamed of doing.

The Sea Wolf, however, puts much more depth and complexity into this story and into the relationship between Larsen and Van Weyden.  Wolf Larsen is created with varied contradictions that form a realistic if somewhat scary and perhaps even tragic man.  While he rules the ship the way a lion (or perhaps a wolf) would rule the jungle, he has the seemingly educated mind of a philosopher.  He becomes attached to Van Weyden because he can have conversations with him about literature and philosophy.  However, he fundamentally disagrees with Van Weyden about what makes a human.  Van Weyden implies that his world view is one where humans have a moral code, an ability to think, and a soul.  Larsen understands his ability to think as a human; however, he looks at it as a curse instead of a blessing.  He almost would rather be an animal that doesn’t have to think or worry about morals or his soul.  He tells Van Weyden this in one of their confrontations:

You have called me snake, tiger, shark, monster, and Caliban.  And yet, you little rag puppet, you little echoing mechanism, you are unable to kill me as you would a snake or a shark, because I have hands, feet, and a body shaped something like yours.

London’s ability to display both the fondness and the disdain Larsen has for Van Weyden is truly amazing.

While Larsen is certainly the more compelling character of the novel, Humphrey Van Weyden gives him a run for his money in a more subtle way.  As the reader, while I was in awe of Wolf Larsen as an intellectual monster, “oppressed by the primal melancholy of his race”, Van Weyden quietly seemed to grow on me.

He acknowledged the influence that Larsen had on him:

While my faith and hope in human life still survived Wolf Larsen’s destructive criticism, he had nevertheless been a cause of change in minor matters.  He had opened up for me the world of the real, of which I had known practically nothing and from which I had always shrunk.

Van Weyden also managed to “find his legs” to stand on during his conversations with Larsen:

You will observe there… a slight trembling.  It is because I am afraid, the flesh is afraid; and I am afraid in my mind because I do not wish to die.  But my spirit masters the trembling flesh and the qualms of the mind.  I am more than brave. I am courageous.  Your flesh is not afraid.  You are not afraid.  On the one hand, it costs you nothing to encounter danger; on the other hand, it even gives you delight.  You enjoy it.  You may be unafraid, Mr. Larsen, but you must grant that the bravery is mine.

Van Weyden’s ability to adapt to his surroundings and his circumstances made him something more than simply a self-proclaimed man of ideas.   His intellect crossed over from the world of thinking to the world of doing when “doing” was required to survive.  Perhaps this is bravery?

Posted in Short Stories

A favorite paragraph…

When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.  To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand.  This chafing is bound to act and react, producing divers evils and leading to various misfortunes.  It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.

This first paragraph of Jack London’s short story, “In A Far Country”, has become one of my favorites.  It wonderfully describes the story that follows.  Two men, Carter Weatherbee and Percy Cuthfert, take up with a company of men bound for the Yukon in search of gold.  While the other men either have had experience on this type of expedition or just plain have the adaptability London speaks of in this first paragraph, Weatherbee and Cuthfert have neither.

London dubs these two guys, the Incapables, and at a point where they feel they can no longer continue with the group, they arrogantly decide to stay put in a cabin along the way.  As their hatred for each other grows, so does the scurvy, frostbite, paranoia and the number of severed toes scattered on the cabin’s floor.  As with the other London stories, I’ve read, one doesn’t have to guess what is going to eventually happen.  Especially when the story starts out with such an incredible paragraph.

I have also just finished reading The Sea Wolf.  I need to take some time in writing a post about Wolf Larsen.  He’s a character that takes some pondering – more so than many characters.  The novel, in some ways, turns this first “In A Far Country” paragraph, upside down.

Posted in Short Stories

“…with the storm passed away the ‘bricklayer’s’ soul…”

As I’m reading Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf, I thought I’d take time out to read another one of his short stories.  This time, I chose “Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan”.  This was London’s first short story to be published.  It won a contest in 1893 sponsored by the San Fransisco Morning Call and then was published in that newspaper.

The story is about five pages and tells the tale of a schooner named Sophie Sutherland during a typhoon off the coast of Japan (as you might guess).   Even early in his career, London wrote beautiful narratives depicting nature in all it’s glory and terror.  I enjoyed the way he described each wave that threatened to pummel the ship as a “sea” unto itself.

No major human characters are present in the story with the exception of a sailor called the “bricklayer” who is dying of consumption.  His presence is briefly mentioned in the middle of the storm and then in the final line of the story, “…with the storm passed away the ‘bricklayer’s’ soul.”

I’m thoroughly enjoying The Sea Wolf and find Wolf Larsen to be one of the more fascinating characters I’ve run across in some time.  I’m looking forward to posting about him soon.

Not being an avid sailor, a few terms in the story were unfamiliar to me.  One of those being the “jib”.   A jib is a triangular staysail set ahead of the foremast of a sailing vessel. Its tack is fixed to the bowsprit, to the bow, or to the deck between the bowsprit and the foremost mast.  In the picture below, four jibs can be seen with a fifth one wrapped around the bowsprit (this is at the front of the ship).  This definition and picture are from Wikipedia.

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