The need to create facsimile lives for our literary heroes is waxing. It isn't enough for readers to enjoy the work of authors they love in the characters they have created; we want to know more about both the author and the characters. If we can't know the truth, then fabricate a story for us. Michael Cunningham has done it with Virginia Woolf
and Walt Whitman
, Colm Tóibín with Henry James
, and many versions of Sherlock Holmes's putative life-in-retirement have been making the rounds. One of the best is The Jungle Law
, Victoria Vinton's tale of Rudyard Kipling, himself one of the best storytellers of all time. In 1892, 26-years-of-age and nearly broke, but expecting royalties from his successful books, Ruddy and his wife Caroline leave London for rural Vermont. There they will build a home, their firstborn will arrive, and Kipling will seek out the quiet he needs to invite his "Daemon" to call. This much is fact.
Down the road from the Kipling home lives the Connolly family: Jack, Addie, and Joe, their 11-year-old son. The gray sameness of their stunted, ingrown lives could not be more different from Kipling's. And, that difference resides in the imagination. Addie does the laundry for Caroline and when Joe delivers it, he meets the exuberant Rudyard and is drawn irretrievably into the spell of his stories. He meets Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves; and Shere Khan, a fierce Bengal tiger; Mowgli's friends, Baloo a brown bear and Bagheera a black panther; and Kaa, a 30-foot python. Joe is led into this lush jungle, filled with sounds and color and fragrance and danger, and he identifies with Mowgli's bravery. Then, he goes home to his ill-tempered father who is dismissive of Kipling because he is afraid he is losing Joe to him, but is unable to temper his granite facade.
Of course, once these opposing camps have been set up, there must be conflict. Mowgli was 11 when he took on Shere Khan; how can Joe do less? Vinton has taken a page from Kipling in describing Mowgli's gathering of the animals:
There are sambar deer, the color of cashews, wild pigs with their sickle-shaped tusks of hair that sprout from their chins and hang, curled like a mandarin's beard ... Mowgli stands with his hands on his hips, his legs splayed and his chest bared and gleaming, no longer the child who would bumble and fall as he tried to keep up with the pack.
Heady stuff for a Vermont boy who has known nothing but hardship, monotony, a loutish, often drunken father, and a timid mother. Vinton creates an entirely convincing climax to her very well-written book. She even provides a coda giving us insight into Kipling's last days. A first-rate first novel. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), born to a British family in Bombay and raised by a foster family in England, moved to Vermont in 1892. He and his wife were basically broke, but his literary star was on the rise, and he sought a place to work and raise a family. First-time novelist Vinton, using a free and direct third person, presents Kipling's life there as he worked on what became The Jungle Books
. When Kipling encounters a Vermont farm boy, Joe Connolly, Kipling uses storytelling to draw him out. Their relationship enrages the boy's father, depressed, aggressive Irish immigrant Jack. Jack can't, however, stop the writer and Joe from talking, and the two discuss a new character Kipling is turning over in his mind: Mowgli, abandoned in the jungle and raised by animals. Kipling proceeds to draw on his conversations with the impoverished boy, as well as his own experience with abandonment and with a cruel foster family, to develop Mowgli's story. But there's way too much distance between the omniscient narrator and Kipling and the others: Vinton gets into their heads effectively enough but doesn't render what she finds there with immediacy or abandon. (Oct. 3)
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