Monday, October 13, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Kipling and London

Rudyard Kipling and Jack London are both writers I’ve always associated with adolescent boys’ adventure stories and therefore have not felt the need to acquaint myself with.  It turns out that Kipling’s Kim (#78 on the list) and London’s The Call of the Wild (#88) also inhabit the category of “pleasant surprises.”
            They are very different novels, written by two people in very different circumstances, but they have several things in common as well.  Kim conveys surprisingly incisive views of cultural difference seen through the eyes of a young boy.  The Call of the Wild contains a surprisingly incisive view of the workings of the canine mind. (For two other examples of a human writer getting convincingly into the mind of a dog, read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, which is fiction, and The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, which is nonfiction.)  These two novels also fulfill that most wonderful promise of literature of transporting you, the reader, to a new and foreign place you will never have the chance to experience first-hand.
            Both writers write about events and settings they know very well, being made of them.  Kipling was British, raised mostly in India in that peculiar cultural and ethnic environment of the British Raj, which figures frequently in British literature of the early part of the 20th century.  London was American, some would say quintessentially American, being of the West of the late 1800’s, a land of challenge and opportunity often presented as the embodiment of the American spirit.
            Kim’s protagonist is a young boy; The Call of the Wild’s is a dog.  Each is in his way a displaced person: Kim the son of Irish and English parents abandoned to the streets of India, passing as an Indian boy; Buck a farm dog stolen and pressed into service as a Yukon sled dog.  Each is forced to live a life outside the expectations of his “breed” and each survives by the strength of his own core being.  These characters, thrown against their wills into their present circumstances, go from incident to incident, encountering new strange and influential characters at every turn, only to be shoved in a new direction and never to see them again.  They grow along the way, gaining experience and control through hardship and near misses of both the dangerous and safe, affectionate kind.
            Kim was published in 1901 and The Call of the Wild in 1903, making them both novels not truly belonging to the 20th century (similar to Henry James’ novel), more so because they were stories intended to entertain and illuminate with no pretensions to prescience. Both were originally published serially and they have that cliff-hanging, bated-breath pacing and tone that can be so enjoyable when done well.  These are done very well.  The writers’ mastery over their craft is plain.  They are both contemporary novels, so written in the real time and on the real experience of the writer and yielding a satisfying immediacy.  They each convey wisdom of the kind that grows out of culture clash—old cultures against each other, or a new culture establishing itself.  And each is, fundamentally, an adventure story: exciting and suspenseful, the kind of reading that might make you miss your train stop.
            Prejudice, as we all know, is not admirable.  It also carries with it the risk that you might miss out on some good reading. 

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.