From: the public library
For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older Than Myself
In a nutshell:
Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, raised in India where his father had been stationed. Incredibly street-wise and savvy, the boy encounters an elderly lama in his city, and ends up accompanying the lama on the old man’s spiritual quest.
Along the way, Kim delivers a message for Mahbub Ali, a horse dealer who has been a sort-of father figure to the boy. Kim’s successful delivery and subsequent events in his travels with the lama put him on the path to be educated as a spy for the British.
The main appeal of Kim was watching its young protagonist cleverly suss out a situation, and use his intuition about human nature to turn that situation to his advantage. I can see why author Laurie R. King used Kipling’s book as inspiration for one of her Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes novels. The fun of reading about Mary Russell was watching her use her powers of observation to investigate cases. Mary and Kim are of similar stock.
One may think that a spy adventure tale from 1901 would be a mouldering, musty thing but that’s not true in this case. It always pleases me how the classics can still maintain a fresh snap. In particular, I liked Kipling’s descriptions of travel and the places Kim sees on his journey. Here’s an excerpt of one such description, when Kim and the lama are settling down for a night on the road along with other travelers.
By this time the sun was driving broad golden spokes through the lower branches of the mango trees; the parakeets and doves were coming home in their hundreds . . . Swiftly the light gathered itself together, painted for an instant the faces and the cart-wheels and the bullocks’ horns as red as blood. Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country and bringing out, keen and distinct, the smell of wood-smoke and cattle and the good scent of wheaten cakes cooked on ashes.
The book does show its age with its recurring references to Kim’s “blood” as directing him to react in certain ways – the Irish blood in him. Of course, Kipling was the writer who wrote the infamous poem, “The White Man’s Burden.” So that he would attribute traits to a character’s race is not surprising, but cringe-worthy all the same. Fortunately, with Kim, Kipling seemed more intent on telling a good yarn than on pushing a particular agenda (though a post-colonial literary criticism of Kim would be interesting to read). Kim himself seems indifferent about being white, a “sahib.” When he is enrolled in an English school in India, he uses his vacation time to insinuate himself once again among the masses, where he is more at ease. Kim’s nickname in the book is Friend of All the World.
The relationship between Kim and the lama forms the emotional ballast of the book. Kim is fiercely loyal and protective of the lama. Kim acquires a number of father-figures throughout the book and all except the lama are part of the Great Game, the British covert struggle against Russia for control in central Asia. Except for the distant Col. Creighton, Kim’s handlers exhibit a genuine affection for the boy and I enjoyed seeing them all take their young protégé in hand.
I was sometimes confused by Kipling’s use of multiple names for the characters. He would sometimes unexpectedly change tacks with the story as well, and it would take me a moment to figure out what was happening. However, some of my confusion may be attributed to reading Kim as a lunch break book, reading about 30 pages at a time.
I liked Kim, though it’s not the type of story to have staying power with me and be a favorite. I am curious though to re-read that Laurie R. King book, called The Game, now that I know the story of Kimball O’Hara. That’s one of the perks of reading classics: you get to unlock the references made by later literature. Just this weekend even, I ran across a Kipling reference in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.
A Striped Armchair – “To be honest, the first forty pages were rough going. I could tell that the bare bones of the story-an Irish orphan grows up with streets of India and is unusually clever-were good, but the writing style felt like I had wandered into an opium den.” [My note: Eva’s review gets more positive later, but I couldn’t resist quoting the opium den comparison. From a review of both Kim and Laurie R. King’s The Game.]
Monniblog – “The descriptions of India and its people certainly shows Kipling’s love for his home as well as being very informative about India’s culture, history, and religions.”
Kim of Shelf Love [review of audio book] – “I found the interrelationships among the many different cultures of 19th century India to be fascinating. I could tell that this is a rich book, but I felt that I was just skimming over the surface with my listening.”