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By Rudyard Kipling
Mahwah, New Jersey: Watermill Press, 1981
ISBN # 0-89375-610-5
396 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2013

Kim is a poor, white, English boy who speaks the local Indian dialect and was born in British, India (actually in present day Lahore, Pakistan). His father, Kimball O’Hara died when Kim was only three, but told him that “a Red Bull on a green field” would one day appear and befriend him. He has his birth certificate and a couple other papers sewn into a leather pouch which he carries around his neck. He has grown up very poor, a street kid with incredible smarts.

His adventure begins when he meets Teshoo Lama, a lama monk who is on a search for a sacred river. Kim becomes his chela, sort of servant/companion. They set off on this journey to find the sacred and magic River of Healing which the lama is looking for and which will free him from this world into some higher spiritual space.

The first journey that Kim goes on with the monk is from Lahore, in current day southeast Pakistan, on a journey slanting southeast across India to Banaras (present day Varanasi, India). From Banaras they will take the Grand Trunk Road that runs from Banaras to Calcutta.

The monk intuitively recognizes that Kim, only about 14 at the time, is quite a special person:

“He is, I think, not altogether of this world. He was sent all of a sudden to aid me in this search, and his name is Friend of all the World.”

The two travel The Grand Trunk Road hunting this magical river, but the adventure takes on a second task as well. Kim finds his red bull on a green field. It is the flag of a group of Irish troops in the British army. They remember his father, and given Kim’s special language skills and knowledge of the local culture, and his brightness, this young boy becomes an unlikely British spy.

We follow his adventures with the lama seeking his saving river and his (unclear) work with the British as a war threatens to break out in India which will involve the Russians. The coming war is referred to as “The Game” by the British, and one sage, speaking of the young Kim boy:

“. . . only once in a thousand years is a horse born so well-fitted for the Game as this our colt.”

The novel is part adventure, part travelogue; there is only a relatively slim plot outside the notion of the lama’s goal of finding his river. The war is a distant cloud hanging over the story, threatening rain, perhaps a bit of thunder, but it keeps its distance and the rain of war is avoided.

The novel is a delightful read. On the one hand it reminded me of a much longer version of something like a Hardy Boys novel for children. However, this is definitely not a children’s novel, nor is it of trivial things – there is a search for eternal life and involvement as a spy in a coming war. Poverty and hardship is everywhere. Nonetheless, the novel does seem an excuse for adventure for its own sake. We learn a good deal from the lama about his notion of spirituality, but we learn virtually nothing of the power and role of the River of Healing, and we know almost nothing of the coming war itself. They are sort of teasers or anchors for the story, yet they each remain on the fringes.

There is no doubt that the author has and displays a vast knowledge of India, its culture, its many religious, the lives of common folks especially the native poor. He tells good stories and I was gripped by them. However, the sparse plot, sort of weak bones which hold up the scaffolding of the story, doesn’t seem of the same quality of other works I’ve been reading by Nobel Prize winners.

I think that Kipling’s strong reputation is built on other works, especially his poetry and short stories. I am, however, very happy I read the story and was gripped by it, but felt that the plot remained at the very surface of things, primarily a vehicle for a display of Kipling’s vast knowledge of Indian culture.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett