I have been aware of the themes of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous (1897) almost all my life. I was given the book by my father when I was a child, just after the family emigrated to Canada in what turned out to be a failed attempt to escape the privations of post-war Britain, where daily life was governed by the ration card. After the transatlantic liner docked in Quebec in 1951, we walked up to the city heights to have breakfast in a diner. As he began to eat, my father said, ‘These are the first pork sausages I have tasted since 1940 . . .’
Two days previously, when my brother and I were about to climb into bunks in the family cabin, we had been told by a passing steward that the ship would be crossing Newfoundland’s Grand Banks during the night. He spoke of the days when codfish were so numerous in these warm shallow seas that they slowed the onward passage of sailing ships through the ocean. But by the time we woke the next day and rushed to the rail to see this wonder of nature, the ship had left Newfoundland far behind and was about to enter the St Lawrence. On both rocky shores of the vast river mouth, pine trees crowded down to the water’s edge. Ocean spray breaking on forest: this was my childhood image of an immense New World, with my father’s delight in his arrival breakfast a hint of the abundant life to come.
When he gave Captains Courageous to me, my father described the opening episode of the book: a teenage boy falls overboard from a transatlantic liner at night and is hauled into a dory by a deckhand from a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Unsurprisingly, the story resonated with me immediately, for to the child’s mind the story of Captains Courageous is one of rescue. A boy falls into the sea, has adventures and forms friendships, and in due course is returned to his grieving parents.
To the adult mind, however, the story is one of redemption. Harvey Cheyne Jr is the spoilt
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