The first time my mother read Kipling’s KIM aloud to me and my brother, we were both under two years old. We understood maybe one word in ten, even with her footnotes. But my mother was a tremendously talented reader, very lively, and good with character voices and emotion. She was having fun. So we had fun. It didn’t matter that we didn’t get it.
That experience was probably pretty typical for an early science fiction reader. I’ve heard it said that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve.” I think, rather, that science fiction readers start even younger. These kids expect to be baffled by their reading matter. They expect most of it to go over their heads. They hope to pick up comprehension from variation and repetition, context, and the development of character and the story. I know I did.
Kipling moreover had the ideal job for a science fiction writer. He was brought up in an alien culture as a native, and acculturated to the planet of his birth only later, with difficulty. Later still, after acquiring polish at a school for the sons of Anglo-Indian civil servants, he returned to the alien world and got a job writing for Anglo-Indians in India, with lots of opportunity to sell that material back Home. He got to explain India to the English. That was the sort of job a science fiction writer would sell his soul for.
It’s not as if he were the first writer to do this. But he did it with love and deep understanding and attention to detail. He walked a fine line, walked it so well that the English totally believed he was on their side.
That fine line was the honest representation of his home to his aliens. He knew just how to flatter English readers, how to make them believe he understood perfectly the correct way to feel about the behavior of these bewildering savages. And yet he made it quite obvious to me, at least, and good gracious I was only seven when I grokked the subtext: that the Indian world he knew was undisturbed by English incursion. While all these teachers and soldiers and policemen and Government offiicals bustled about, fixing India, India ignored them. India was so damned big, it could absorb them the way a full-size marshmallow pyramid absorbs a few red-hot charges of buckshot.
Of course Kipling left India for good again when he was still a young man. What he never knew, or was never able to convey, I certainly had no clue about.
My mother read us KIM about once a year until I was six or seven, at which point I declared I was capable of reading it to myself. I still didn’t understand much—but in subsequent decades, as I picked it up again, I found myself grokking more, and yet stepping into a time machine.
As I reread, I am twelve again, realizing for the first time what Huneefa really did to Kim in that smoky upstairs room, I am ten, when I forgave the Hindu boy for trying to poison Kim in the house of the Healer of Sick Pearls, I am seven, when I realized that the Lama really was a powerful man back in his Himalayan home, I am six, when I could at last fully picture what Kim was peeking at through the crack under the door at the Jadoo Gher, the House of Wonders—a museum that Kipling’s real-life father designed in the northern city of Lahore, by the way.
Every time I read this book, I descend layer by layer through the years of my comprehension. I come to accept the ignorances of my childhood. I learn to be patient with my current thick-headedness, knowing I’ll know even more when I’m older. I rejoice in what I finally, finally grasp today.
It pays to read books to your children that are written beyond their comprehension level. It toughens their minds, gives them patience with a world they can’t grasp yet, teaches them to have fun while they learn.
It’s about time I reread Kim again. This should be good.
Jennifer Stevenson’s latest title with Book View Cafe is roller derby vampire romance A Taste of You, now available for $4.99.