Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Down in History: Reflections on Victoria Vinton's The Jungle Law


Rudyard Kipling

Soapbox.  Axe to grind.  Whatever you want to call it, everyone has something that makes them heated.  As I write this, it’s difficult to avoid clich├ęs—blow steam, get under the skin, fly in the ointment.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that we have so much tired language relating to issues of great frustration because life is full of them. 

My big gripe is with fiction that uses a character from another author’s creative work.  There’s a whole slew of these novels, ranging from Jean Rhys’s well-regarded (by many) Wide Sargasso Sea to the dreamy escapades of Darcy-craving Austen fans.  No matter the craft and intention behind such novels, I categorically reject this practice of stealing others’ creative property, and when my writer friends seem baffled or say it’s not “stealing”, I have only to ask them how they would feel if someone else took one of their characters and appropriated that character to a re-telling.  That invariably makes them realize that using somebody else’s creation to one’s own ends is at best a questionable practice.  I should point out that a book like John Gardner’s Grendel bothers me less (in fact, I admire it), since Beowulf belongs to an entire culture and is not the product of a single author with an individual intent.  Even the re-casting of premises or conflicts doesn’t bother me the way using another author’s character does.

And so it would seem that turning an actual, historical person into a fictional character is also a questionable practice, but once again, I’m more lenient here.  However mythologized they may be, historical figures once existed and hence are property of this world which fiction—good fiction—probes and reflects.  I appreciate the separation between fiction and nonfiction; hence, a book like The DaVinci Code does not give me fits the way it made many confused souls think that there might be factual truth in a genre and form that has little, if anything, to do with factual truth.  So too do I recognize that a fictional rendering of an historical person is exactly that—fiction, an imagined version of something that has been, or might have been, a certain way.

I found myself open to and interested in Victoria Vinton’s scenario in The Jungle Law, a novel which brings to life the period of time Rudyard Kipling lived in Vermont.  Told in close third-person sections that go into the mind of Kipling himself, Kipling’s wife, the neighbor boy Joe, Joe’s mother Addie, and Joe’s father Jack, the novel explores the effect Kipling’s imaginative and cultured lifestyle has on this agrarian family as they struggle to make ends meet.  The novel is strongest in the scenes where Joe directly interacts with Kipling, by turns baffled at Kipling’s way of speaking (Joe’s coarse pride makes him suspect Kipling might be making fun of him, when in fact the reader can see that Kipling is merely being playful and kind) and intrigued by Kipling’s actions (Kipling has a bicycle, which he encourages Joe to try riding).  Unfortunately, these direct, scenic encounters are few; Vinton chooses instead to let Kipling’s presence be felt in the mind and quiet reflections of the characters.

Still, Vinton hits on the emotional truth of the situation: that the dreamers in our midst, the ones who dispense with the regimented business of the world because they give credence to what is interesting, charming, and deeply felt, may suffer dismissive behavior from others, and yet those dismissive others are powerfully enriched and enlarged by their contact with such dreamers.

The New York Times review of The Jungle Law recognizes the book’s choice to portray Kipling as this open-minded dreamer, though the reviewer feels “it’s important to know [Vinton’s version] is not the whole story.”  The reviewer, Mark Kamine, calls attention to Kipling’s real-life, “monumentally offensive” poem “The White Man’s Burden.”  Fair enough.  In fact, Kamine’s review does a nice job of delicately reminding readers that fictional portrayals should not affect our overall understanding of an historical figure’s actual achievements.  His review seems a tacit nod to the danger of popular portrayals like The Brownings of Wimpole Street, an overly sentimental 1934 film which did impact critical reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry.

As with last Tuesday’s book, The Jungle Law’s ties to my preparatory reading for the Squaw Valley Workshop may be difficult to trace.  And, just as The Golden Mean’s editor will be at the workshop, so too will The Jungle Law’s editor, Anika Streitfeld, be in attendance.  I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of women whose work takes place primarily behind the scenes.