Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling


Kim and Mowgli, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and The Man who would be King–with a slight detour into how animals became as they are today1, I’d bet that Rudyard Kipling is tied in most people’s minds with British India, with no little justification as that’s where his best known works are set. However, he did live for a time in the United States–he owned a house called Naulakha2 in Vermont–and this is when he wrote Captains Courageous, as much a product of fin-de-siecle America as Kim is of India under British rule at approximately the same time.

Harvey Cheyne, fifteen-year-old son of a wealthy railroad and shipping magnate has been left to his neurasthenic mother to raise as his father has been too busy building his business empire to bother wondering how the boy will turn out. The result is, of course, a boy so coddled, indulged and spoiled that he fancies himself quite the height of perfection. Crossing the Atlantic to go on a tour of Europe with his mother, he swaggers off with a cigar3 offered him by one of the male passengers on board, thinking to impress them (doesn’t work, of course–they saw through him on day one of the voyage). Unfortunately, the combination of wooziness resulting from the stogie coming just as the ship rolls tips him over into the sea.

Harvey awakes, miserably sodden and queasy, in the bottom of a dory, lying on a pile of extremely slippery smelly fish. One of the crew members of the We’re Here, a Gloucester fishing boat moored nearby, spotted Harvey fall and fished him out along with the cod he’d come to get, but can’t stop working in order to return Harvey to either the liner–too far away by then in any case–or back to the schooner. At the end of the day, Manuel takes Harvey back to the We’re Here, where Harvey attempts to convince the captain, Disko Troop, to return to the mainland so that Harvey can return to the bosom of his indulgent mama. Not surprisingly, Troop refuses; he allows as how Harvey did fall off a large ship but refuses to believe the stories of wealth and power. His concern is that he, and the men depending on him, not lose their year’s income by leaving the cod fishing. Magnanimously, given the boy’s lack of experience, Troop offers Harvey a job as ‘second boy’ to help his own son, their original crew member in this position having fallen overboard.

Weeks later, the We’re Here returns to Gloucester, full to the scuppers of salt cod, and Harvey finally has the opportunity to contact his parents. Believing him drowned at sea, his parents are overjoyed; Cheyne pere pulls all his influence to bear on getting his private (train) car from the Pacific coast of California to the Atlantic of Massachusetts as fast as the rails and engines can carry them4. Upon arrival in Gloucester, they find Harvey transformed from the pampered scion of wealth to an honest, earnest, hardworking upright member of society after a summer of backbreaking work….and Disko is found mistaken in his judgement when he’s forced to realize the truth of what Harvey had been trying to persuade him was the truth. Cheyne takes Dan Troop on as a member of one of his tea clippers’ crews, a far more remunerative career than cod fishing at the time, though perhaps of no longer duration, given improvements in transport.

More than a century after it was written, literary styles have changed so much that I imagine this would be something of a hard sell to your average disinterested high school student today. Boats? yawn. Cod? who cares? and railroads are a joke as transport. Possibly as the end of an AP class covering American History or some such–I have fond memories of reading it as part of a historical immersion experience for sixth graders in San Francisco; as a period piece, I think it has a little value in its descriptions of sailing, fishing and rail travel, although even there it’s a more than slightly romanticized bit of Victorian glurge. That said, Kipling is still something of a landmark author, although the world’s moved on, and his popularity had begun to wane even by the end of his own lifetime; for public libraries, it might be worth trying to get a copy of Captains Courageous if you’ve got all of Kipling’s other works and they circulate well.

As for what to read next, if you like the writing style…well, Kipling wrote a great deal; start there. If you like the descriptions of the seafaring life, try Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

1with the caveat that I doubt Kipling expected us to believe these as serious evaluations of evolution
2literally “900,000”, in this case referring to the expense of the property
3not surprisingly, given the cinematic codes of the time, this was changed to ice cream sodas in the movie
4Being the railroad king of the west coast has its advantages

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One thought on “Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

  1. Pingback: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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