Kim ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Rudyard Kipling’s novel about India, Kim, was first published in 1901. Its principal character is an orphaned Irish boy, Kimball “Kim” O’Hara. At the beginning of the book, Kim is twelve years old. He dresses like a native and can speak Hindi, so he can go anywhere, blend in, and be accepted as one who belongs. When he meets a traveling Tibetan lama, an old man looking for a sacred river that was supposedly formed when the Buddha shot an arrow, he decides to travel with the lama as his chela. This friendship between Kim and the lama is one of the enduring “male-bonding” friendships in English literature.
Kim and the lama travel throughout India, intermingling with the many ethnic and religious groups. When they come upon (apparently by accident) the army regiment that Kim’s father belonged to, Kim meets Colonel Creighton. When Colonel Creighton sees how smart and resourceful Kim is and how he is able to blend into any part of India, he trains Kim as a British spy and mapmaker. There are secret plans afoot for a war to begin and Kim can assist by ferreting out information in the unlikeliest of places. It turns out that Kim’s friend Mahbub Ali, besides being a horse trader and a sort of father figure to Kim, is also a member of the British Indian Secret Service.
Kim spends three years in an English-run boarding school (that the lama pays for), where he learns English customs and ways. All the rest of the time he continues to bum around with the lama. The book ends five years after it begins, in the hills of Tibet, with Kim on the verge of manhood and the lama achieving the kind of spiritual enlightenment he always wanted.
Kim is not an easy book to read. Since it is a picaresque, it has hardly any plot or “story” to speak of and very little emotional resonance. It is mostly a set of characters moving around from place to place, speaking in “thee” and “thou” language, and having “adventures” that hardly seem relevant or fitting into any kind of cohesive whole. Maybe Kipling fancied himself inventing a new kind of storytelling with this novel, his most famous work.
The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics version that I read has a forty-page “introduction” that is dry, academic and completely unnecessary. I read the whole thing, but it is painful reading. Adding to my problems with Kim is the heavily footnoted text. Almost every page has multiple footnotes and, instead of the footnotes being at the bottom of each page (which I would have found helpful), they are all gathered in a special section at the back of the book. So, if you are reading every word, you will find yourself having to flip through the pages to the back of the book far too often. To make matters worse, many of the footnotes are explaining obscure place names in India that don’t matter and aren’t essential to what is going on. As soon as you read them, you will forget them.
If Kim is a “juvenile classic” (because the main character is a child), I can’t imagine school kids voluntarily reading and enjoying it. This adult barely made it through the entire 300 pages. If I had tried to read it in eighth or ninth grade, I wouldn’t have made it through the first chapter and would have been begging to read something else instead, just as long as it wasn’t Moby Dick or Little Women.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp