Unlike many of London’s short stories (at least many of the ones I’ve read so far), “The Water Baby” takes place in warm, tropical Hawaii. John Lakana, whom I presume is a relatively young, native Hawaiian, is fishing in a lagoon with his seventy-something friend, Kohokumu, who is also a native Hawaiian. Their discussion takes a philosophical turn.
Kohokumu tells Lakana the tales of Maui, a Hawaiian equivalent to Hercules, and Maui’s battle with the sun. The sun is “evidently a trade-unionist” and only wanted a six-hour day. Maui was more of an “open shop” kind of guy and wanted a twelve hour day. They compromised – the sun got winter and Maui got summer.
On a more serious note, the two of them briefly touch on both Christianity of the Hawaiian Bible translated by missionaries and the more naturalistic ideas of science. However, Kohokumu continually talks of stories of the island mythology from his youth. In the course of this conversation, Kohokumu concludes that “Man does not make truth. Man, if he be not blind, only recognizes truth when he sees it.”
The discussion continues with a story about “The Water Baby” who lived a long time ago when the island King grew angry with his subjects. Everyone knew the King loved lobster. The Water Baby, who could talk to fish, came up with an ingenius idea of getting lobster to appease the King. He could understand the plans the sharks were making to eat him when he tried to dive to get the lobsters. The Water Baby threw lava rocks into the lagoon deceiving the sharks while he jumped in after on the other side. He did this 39 times getting 39 lobsters.
After the story, Lakana is skeptical that this actually happened. Kohokumu “proves” that this is true by stating that he has seen the 39 lava rocks when diving to the bottom of the lagoon. Of course, Lakana’s thinking is that the lava rocks don’t prove that the story is true, the story is a way to explain the lava rocks. A slight difference.
London’s writing is as beautiful as ever in this story (his last one, published in 1916). I thought that the story seemed to be broken up into too many parts, though. There was the Maui story at the beginning, Lakana and Kohokumu’s discussion, then the Water Baby story. They all tied in to the same theme but just made the whole story a little disjointed.