Of all the miniature adaptations of the classics I pulled out of my Happy Meals in the late 70s, the majority were from the Victorian era, which was a great time for fun books. These Moby Illustrated Classics – yes, McD’s used to put awesome little books in their HMs – came at me in a rush one summer, and their effect on me is incalculable. The dopamine hit I got from just getting a Happy Meal in the first place (despite its accompaniment by arguably the worst commercially available hamburger ever conceived and assembled) has forever been associated with reading. Take note: if you want a kid to read that book you’re giving them, include some french fries. This series of posts is a revisit to those stories now, in a summer when I am no longer a kid, but maybe like you, in need of the books I read in a simpler time.
This one is a bit of a cheat. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim never actually made it into the Moby Illustrated Classics collection. According to this website, its publication was planned, but never effected. Still, I’ve had a copy for years, and anything Kipling is quintessentially Victorian, so I read it anyway, because I wanted to. That’s what Summer reading is about. AMEN?! Amen.
This is the story of an Irish orphan (Kimball O’Hara, called Kim) living on the streets of India. When it is discovered that he is a sahib (a person of no color) and also extremely smart (as living on the streets has made him one sharp cookie), he is whisked off for a British education and then… training as a spy. Then, he has adventures. And yes, as far as I understand Edward Said’s Orientalism – ironically, a book first published in 1978, while I was happily devouring said books (but not included in any Happy Meals) this book is along the lines of what he was talking about. So, there’s your caveat: despite that Kipling knew a shit-ton about India – indeed, he spent his childhood there – what he knows is marbled with his own POV as a colonizing Westerner. Good luck finding a book from this period and set in this part of the world that doesn’t have a solid tinge of Orientalism, including next-up in this series Around the World in 80 Days. On the other hand, rather than being a story of a white-person dabbling in an exotic world, it’s sort of the opposite. Kim never views himself as rescued from “going native”, but learns Western ways from a practical standpoint. In fact, parallel to his career as a spy (in the Great Game, as they called the political/military Western tussle over certain parts of that region) is a separate life as the disciple of a Tibetan holy man. He’s invested in his Indian side, only dabbling in British ways. Through the adventures, there’s a deeper thread, as Kim wrestles with his identity. To my mind, these things save Kipling from the worst failings of Orientalism.
Like Treasure Island, the jargon in this one flows thickly. There are a few points where you have to guess at the words or references – unless you’re willing to look things up every few pages. Maybe much of it would be more familiar to a British reader, at least one of that era. But you know, if you ever go to a place you are not from or have never been, you will be surrounded by that which you do not understand. And who would give a flying faquir about a book purporting to be an adventure in another place, but using only words and concepts you already knew? Pfft. So, for making you feel like you’re having a colonial adventure in British India, Kipling is your man. And for someone caught between two cultures, you might find a kindred soul in Kim.