Kipling’s classic long, short story about turning a boy into a man will not be an easy read for either boys or men. The slow action and the awkward language may dismay the former, and the shadow of many wasted father-son moments could prove unnerving in the mind of the latter. Nevertheless, what a great read it is!
The story traces the five-month-long redemption of 15-year-old Harvey Cheyne Jr., a spoilt, rich boy who is swept overboard from a luxury cruiser, and who is rescued by Disko Troop, a salt-wizened, nineteenth-century cod-fishing captain, one thousand miles off the North American Atlantic coast.
Harvey is by no means a bad boy, but he is immature and impertinent because he has never learnt how to work or think of others. Only when a knock from the captain’s ’11-inch-hand’ presses his life’s ‘reset button’ does he humbly acknowledge his ingratitude and allow his companions to begin to help him. The steadying friendship of the captain’s son, Dan, and the willing cooperation of the crew -under the rough but fatherly care of the captain- all contribute to draw the ‘heap of good’ out of Harvey that was made dormant by idleness. By watching how the others ply their trades, Harvey begins to learn the way that most boys learn: by imitating someone they respect. Soon, cleaning, learning his ropes -literally! – learning how to row and the ‘mysteries of baiting, how to keep-watch without falling asleep, and witnessing death in its unadorned rawness all contribute to educate Harvey into the fisherman’s ways. His new life quickly teaches him to work, to suffer, to succeed, and ultimately, for the first time in his life, to live happily.
When reunited with his parents at the end of the catch, his reflective father realises that the harsh realities of sea life and the hard-earned respect and friendship that accrued from learning how to pull one’s weight, combined to give his son’s life the foundation of service, duty and fortitude that the unremitting focus of forging his own industrial empire couldn’t do. And more than gaining the services of a worthy heir and future business partner, he realised that he now had the son that he had never really known before.
This is an enchanting tale. But not unlike Harvey, one must be prepared to make the effort needed to navigate some of the built-in obstacles that Kipling’s phonetic spelling is sure to produce. Perhaps an audiobook from Audible will be a better substitute for less confident readers.
David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.