Kipling's last novel and the last of his many stories about India, this is still well worth reading over 100 years after publication. In some ways it...moreKipling's last novel and the last of his many stories about India, this is still well worth reading over 100 years after publication. In some ways it feels like a fantasy autobiography, as Kipling was sent away from an India he loved as a young child to an unfriendly home and a hostile school in England.
What if he had stayed in India and grown up a street urchin? Kim is a young English orphan boy living by his wits on the streets of Lahore. He avoids the English and their schools. He meets a Tibetan monk, whom he conducts to a museum run by a wonderful old man who is a thinly disguised version of Kipling's father. He decides to take to the road as the holy man's chela -- helper or apprentice. About the same time and by chance, he becomes a courier for British intelligence agents.
The basic threads of the plot, and the internal conflicts are thus established early. As Kim grows, he is finally educated in an English school and trained to become an intelligence agent, but still wishes to follow his holy man, who searches for enlightenment, absolution, and redemption.
Who is Kim? English, Indian, intelligence agent, Buddhist monk? Like any hero's journey or coming of age story, there are dilemmas and hard choices. Kipling dramatizes these beautifully. His description of India and Indians is problematic, almost necessarily so from a writer who saw himself as an Anglo-Indian. In many ways, the book is a loving description of Indian culture, though it often uses generalizations which cannot help but strike the modern reader as prejudiced and betraying Kipling's imperialist bias.
Nevertheless, this remains a great book and an interesting and readable picture of a time and place. As a footnote, a fascinating minor character is the Woman of Shamlegh, clearly intended to be Lispeth, the heroine of Kipling's very first Indian story. While on one level the Woman recapitulates Lispeth's character arc, on another level she shows herself strong, independent and gracious. This seems like Kipling's own attempt to redeem a character who fared poorly, and by extension, Indian women and Indian culture as victims.(less)