Captains Courageous is Rudyard Kipling’s classic fable of a boy’s initiation into the fellowship of men, played out on the high seas of the late 1800s. When he falls overboard from a luxury liner, Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled son of an American millionaire, is rescued by a small New England fishing schooner. To earn his keep, Harvey must prove his worth in the only way the skipper and his hardy crew will accept: through the grueling mastery of a fisherman’s skills. Brimming with salty dialogue, crackling adventure, and mesmerizing visions of the sea, Captains Courageous is one of this Nobel Prize-winning author’s most enduringly popular tales.
Award-winning voice actor George Guidall gives a superb performance of the 1897 coming-of-age tale Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. Guidall inhabits each character with ease, breathing life into this crackling story. Harvey Cheyne, Jr., the teenage son of a tycoon, is traveling on a luxury steamship when he goes overboard. Fishermen on a schooner save him, and allow him to stay onboard if he works as part of the crew. So begins his sensational adventures on the high seas, where he seizes the chance to prove his worth as a man.
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Fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne, Jr., a spoiled rich boy possessed of a "mix of irresolution, bravado, and cheap smartness," and an overly protective mother and an overly driven multi-millionaire business tycoon father, is just on his way to Europe to finish his education when he's washed over board his ocean liner and fished out of the North Atlantic by a Portuguese man rowing a dory belonging to Disko Troop, captain of the "We're Here," a cod fishing schooner out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Harvey, who has never done any work in his life, must earn his keep as a supercargo member of the crew because Troop doesn't believe his "crazy" story about being the son of a millionaire and so won't leave his fishing grounds to return the boy to his parents until after the end of the fishing season. Harvey soon begins changing, becoming more humble and physically fit and soaking up knowledge of the schooner, the sea, the fish, the weather, and the men. He "works like a horse, eats like a pig, and sleeps like a dead man," and is soon a valued member of the crew. But, assuming he and the ship survive the dangerous work, weather, and steamship liners, what will he do with his life after the fishing season?
After one gets past the initial shock of Kipling writing slangy, dialect-inflected, turn of the century American English and New England dialogue, chowder full of things like "the blame boys," "plumb providential," "Pshaw," "fust," "ruther," "fer," "hev to," "efter," "hain't," and the like), the first three quarters of the book are engaging, crackling with Kipling's enthusiasm for North Atlantic fishing life and its savory fishermen, all driven by the education and growth of Harvey. The novel provides a wealth of detail on sailing (sails, masts, tackles, navigation, currents, squalls, fogs, rocks, shoals, etc.), fishing (lines, hooks, dories, cod, grampus, squid, cleaning, salting, stowing, eating, etc.), and general nautical living (ghost stories, popular yarns, melancholy or rousing songs, forearm boils, teasing in-jokes, sea burials, etc.) which Kipling gradually reveals through Harvey's life and work aboard the "We're Here."
Kipling, who wrote the book shortly after marrying a New England woman, clearly enjoyed doing first-hand research for it, visiting various boats and ships in Boston harbor and getting sick on a fishing boat. Throughout his novel, he expresses his love for the New England coast, the Atlantic Ocean, America, and the American capitalist dream. This is very much a boy's book. Harvey Jr. and Sr. are tied by male bonds of work and business deeper and grander than anything that might connect the boy to his weak mother. The best education for a boy is doing hard and communal work among men and other boys.
There are moments of vivid nautical experience, as when Harvey wakes up for the first time aboard the schooner:
"The oilskins had a peculiarly thick flavor of their own which made a sort of background to the smells of fried fish, burnt grease, paint, pepper, and stale tobacco; but these, again, were all hooped together by one encircling smell of ship and salt water. . . . Then, too, the boat's motion was not that of a steamer. She was neither sliding nor rolling, but rather wriggling herself about in a silly, aimless way, like a colt at the end of a halter. Water-noises ran by close to his ear, and beams creaked and whined about him. All these things made him grunt despairingly and think of his mother."
And there are moments of vivid nautical beauty, as when Harvey
"began to comprehend and enjoy the dry chorus of wave-tops turning over with a sound of incessant tearing; the hurry of the winds working across open spaces and herding the purple-blue cloud-shadows; the splendid upheaval of the red sunrise; the folding and packing away of the morning mists, wall after wall withdrawn across the white floors; the salty glare and blaze of noon; the kiss of rain falling over thousands of dead, flat square miles; the chilly blackening of everything at the day's end; and the million wrinkles of the sea under the moonlight, when the jib-boom solemnly poked at the low stars, and Harvey went down to get a doughnut from the cook."
Unfortunately, the last quarter of the book consists of a long resolution, which, focusing on Harvey's father, his rags to riches American success story, his businesses, and his relationship with his son, lasts too long, distracts too much from Harvey's compelling sea story, and extols too fervently the glory of America and its capitalist business and "progress," etc.
There are some uncomfortable racial moments involving the ship's cook who, although being treated with affection by the other crew members and Kipling, is perilously close to being a clichéd comedic superstitious and loyal natural servant to white men.
George Guidall, an excellent reader, is in top form here. He makes it easier to listen to than to read Kipling's New England fisherman dialect, what with its strange orthography: "Mebbe I do, an' mebbe I don't. Take a reef in your stummick, young feller. It's full o' my vittles." However, perhaps Guidall makes it a little too easy, and I "mistrust" that he could have made the accent thicker than he does, for I longed to hear more New England English.
Finally, although Captain's Courageous is not as great as Kim, let alone the Jungle Book and Just So Stories, it is a fun read. People who like stories of spoiled boys who mature through hard work and adversity, especially at sea, or who are curious to see late 19th century America through the adoring eyes of a great English writer, should enjoy the book.