Kipling's Choice by Geert Spillebeen
I came to Kipling’s Choice by Geert Spillebeen with a certain amount of knowledge about Rudyard Kipling. I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and used some of his poetry in my classes when I was teaching American History. His name might have been unfamiliar with my students but every one of them knew who Mowgli and Shere Kahn were and Kipling’s words resonated with them because of that; they remembered what he said about colonization and war because they all grew up watching Baloo in the jungle. But I wanted them to know that there was a lot more to Rudyard Kipling then what Walt Disney showed us. I wish I had Spillebeen’s fantastic novel with me back then as it is exactly the sort of thing I wanted my students to read. It is the part of Kipling’s life I was always sure to tell them about, but Spillebeen’s masterpiece puts my classroom lectures to shame. Kipling’s Choice is the most significant book I have read this year. I don’t say that lightly or easily and it is a surprise, I’m sure, to think that a young adult novel could be that important. But it’s true, and if you give the book a read, you will understand why.
Rudyard Kipling was a great and loud proponent of the British Empire throughout the latter part of the 19th century. He believed in Britain above else and one of his deepest disappointments was that he was never able to defend his country on the battlefield. Kipling had horrible eyesight, and this physical deficiency prevented him from being a soldier. He took all of that longing and transferred it into both his writing and the stories he told his son, John. From the earliest age, father and son planned for the day when John could fight for Britain. It was a cherished dream held by every member of the family and when WWI broke out Rudyard immediately set about calling in favors from everyone he knew in order to get John a Commission in the British Army.
It was not surprising, given his father’s vision problems that John should suffer from the same handicap, but Rudyard’s connections were enough to get him into the Irish Guards. In relatively short order, eighteen-year-old John became a second lieutenant, effective the middle of August, 1914. Rudyard had finally fulfilled his dream, and John was overjoyed to be going off to fight for both himself and his father. This was World War I though, and as history knows all too well, millions of teenage boys who left their homes for battlefields in France, Belgium, Turkey and Germany, never returned home. I’m not giving anything away to say that John did not survive the war, indeed Spillebeen opens the book with the engagement in which he dies. In many ways John Kipling is only important because of who his father was, and how his death impacted one of Britain’s greatest patriots. It is to Geert Spillebeen’s great credit that his book brings John to life, and most importantly, makes his death a most singular and personal event.
The narrative form that Spillebeen has chosen to use is quite unorthodox, but it works brilliantly. In the opening pages John is engaged in what we later learn is the Battle of Loos. He is quickly and horribly injured and as he lies helpless in the mud, hoping to be saved and uncertain of his physical condition, his mind takes him through random moments in his life. These flashbacks provide the author with an opportunity to explain how John came to be in battle and what it was like for him to be the son of a world famous author, (at a time when that was like being the son of a movie and rock star combined.) As he suffers great pain and loneliness in the time before his death, John does not reflect philosophically upon his life or his loss of it. Mostly he cries for his parents and his home, and wonders what has happened, what will happen, to him. It is one of the more realistic and emotional portrayals of a death that I have read and shows far better than any movie just what dying in a war is all about. It is worth noting that in the Battle of Loos the British army sent their men out to be little more than cannon fodder. They marched them into German guns, hoping they would overwhelm their defenses; they were wrong. The same thing happened in Gettysburg and Fredericksburg in the U.S. Civil War; the same thing happened in Gallipoli also in 1915. There are a hundred similar battles I could list here, give me time and it could be a thousand. And all of the soldiers are dead just like John Kipling, and all of them died just like he did. And it is never pretty, and it is never glorious. Death never is any of those things and if you think it will be different in battle then you are a dreamer; we are all dreamers.
I have read the more prominent reviews of Kipling’s Choice, that Booklist described “the power of this story is in the contrast between the war and the home front.” And continued that “…the changing viewpoints reveal the patriotic blather and racism that drove the acclaimed writer to send the boy he loved to die in a war he knew nothing about.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “the series of flashbacks characterize Rudyard as overindulgent and prideful -- alternately spoiling and pushing his 'undeveloped,' son with his 'extreme near-sightedness.' It is Rudyard who encourages John to 'do his part in the war' and who pulls strings to get his 17-year-old son appointed second lieutenant in an Irish regiment after John is found physically unfit by the British army... Between the lines readers will detect that John desperately needs approval from his father and Rudyard just as desperately wants his son to become what he could never be: a war hero.”
I think in both cases these reviewers were off the mark as they missed that John wanted to fight, that he was desperate to fight. It is easy to blame all of this on Rudyard, to believe that John died trying to please his father, but I honestly do not believe that is entirely the case, or that it is what Spillebeen is trying to convey. Rudyard wanted very much to be a soldier and later, for his son to have a military career, but that was the wish of nearly every upper class father and son in Europe in the early 20th century. All those sons, millions of them, fought in this war largely because they wanted to, they longed for it; they thought it would be heroic. To dismiss that foolish idealism and blame Rudyard Kipling (and by default all the other fathers as well), is to give the sons too little control over their own destinies. War happens because we want it -- because more of us want it than don’t, and not because we are forced. We, and when I write that I mean humanity in general, seem to have a problem with realizing that war is hell. It was a grand adventure that would be over by Christmas in 1914 which was a lie and we are still surprised today when hostilities do not end as we have scheduled them. Geert Spillebeen makes it clear that John Kipling wanted to fight for his father, but he is equally certain that he wanted it just as much for himself. To read the book as otherwise is to give John too little credit, and to ignore just what World War I was all about in the first place.
Kipling’s Choice is an eloquent and devastating reminder of the most irrefutable of war’s truths: when you are dying the patriotism is gone from you, the anger, the certainty of mission; the promises that have been made by all those who placed you in harm’s way for some lofty cause. All that is left is the sadness expressed by boys like John Kipling, the longing for home, the wish that it had never happened at all. All that is left is a field of dead soldiers, hundreds and thousands and millions of them. We do not have to see their flag draped coffins to know that they are there; we do not have to know where John Kipling fell to mourn him just the same.
All we need to do is remember and it is books like Kipling’s Choice that thankfully will not let us forget.
Kipling’s Choice by Geert Spillebeen
Translated by Terese Edelstein