Most people associate Rudyard Kipling with exotic settings: The Jungle Books' wild Seeonee Hills, the colonial battlefields of "Gunga Din" or the African riverside where the Elephant's Child got his trunk. Born in India to British parents in 1865, Kipling drew almost all his material from the settings that impressed him indelibly in his youth. Today his name conjures the same spirit of adventure that made turn-of-the-century robber barons furnish their homes with potted palms and tiger skins. So it may be a bit of a surprise to learn that Kipling wrote The Jungle Books, the children's classic about a boy raised by a wolf pack, while holed up in southern Vermont.
Two authors have found inspiration in Kipling's Green Mountain connection. Tony Eprile, a South African native who lives in Bennington and authored last year's The Persistence of Memory, is about halfway through a novel he calls Kipling in Winter. In her first book, The Jungle Law, New York City author Victoria Vinton imagines Kipling's first year living in the hills above Brattleboro. The novel, which Publishers Weekly has called a "debut to watch," follows the pattern of Michael Cunningham's The Hours in mixing the facts of an author's life with fiction.
The facts are that an unexpected bank failure, combined with a desire to escape the pressures of early fame, brought Kipling to the home state of his new wife, Caroline, in 1892. For almost five years, the couple and their growing family lived in Naulakha, the graceful Arts-and-Crafts-style house Kipling had designed himself. Family quarrels eventually drove them to England, and, after an Atlantic crossing precipitated the early death of his first daughter, Kipling abandoned the United States for good.
Eprile, whose novel deals with "issues of imposed and self-imposed exile," thinks the Vermont years may help explain why Kipling "didn't develop into the artist people expected him to be," he says. "Certain things that happened here just staggered his artistic and personal development. Though he loved Vermont," Eprile explains, Kipling seemed to feel compelled to play the role of an English aristocrat among commoners, even though this was something he "didn't like and didn't agree with."
Vinton's novel focuses on a more optimistic period: the autumn and winter when Naulakha was still on the drawing board, and Kipling and his pregnant wife lived in a ramshackle rented farm worker's cottage. What passed through the young man's mind as he drafted the first Jungle Book? Vinton describes Kipling eagerly anticipating winter: "the sweep of snow like a clean white page, the pure, cold air, the silence." Kipling imagines the frigid climate helping him to make sense of his experiences in the tropics, distilling them from raw material into art. "He will set himself down to the task of disentangling that whole tumultuous riot of muezzin cries and opium dens, of hawkers and lepers and filth . . . Then whatever he chooses to bury will stay buried, deep in the frozen earth."
Vinton's portrayal of Kipling is bold and intriguing, but what makes it more so is her addition of a fictional counterpoint. Just down the road from the Kiplings are the Connollys -- a family eking out an existence, as Vermonters have done for generations, with an orchard and a small herd of cows. While Kipling looks forward to winter's blank page, Jack Connolly views the cold months as "little more than a test of sanity and endurance, one that he's tried -- and most often failed -- to pass with the aid of a jug."
The families make contact when Jack's wife Addie supplements the farm's income by doing the Kiplings' laundry. The Connollys' 11-year-old son, Joe, is fascinated by Kipling, a grown man who recites rhymes and tells him stories of a boy who lives in freedom and harmony with the wilderness, bound only by the "jungle law." In his imagination, Joe becomes Mowgli, escaping a life of grueling chores and his father's violent temper.
For his part, Kipling is eager to have an audience for his ongoing tale. But Jack Connelly, an Irish immigrant with a hard-luck history that's left him little but his pride, "cannot bear the idea of his son becoming Kipling's stooge." In his mind, Kipling is only another lord of the manor, treating his inferiors like "a bunch of damn coolies."
So the struggle for Joe's impressionable mind begins. The story is character- rather than plot-driven, and in Vinton's hands it unfolds in measured, sensuously detailed prose, always attentive to seasonal changes and the small tasks that fill up a rural life.
Vinton, who's 51 and works as a literacy consultant in the New York City public schools, says the idea for The Jungle Law came to her nearly a decade ago. "My daughter was little, and we were slowly making our way night by night through the great childhood classics," she says in a phone interview. "She would need to hear certain stories again and again and again. There was something very powerful for me about being the person who was conveying these stories, being the tale teller."
Interested in exploring the role of the storyteller through fiction, Vinton initially considered writing about Hans Christian Anderson. Then, reading biographies, she "stumbled on the fact that Kipling had written The Jungle Books in Vermont," she says. "I had been to Vermont, it was a place I loved, and I had been to India as well." Reading The Jungle Books for the first time, she became convinced that "they exerted that power and magic over the listener" that she'd witnessed in her daughter.
Next came years of research. Besides Kipling's biographies and letters, Vinton read everything that might help her bring her setting to life, from memoirs of New England farm sons to books on 19th-century laundering practices and hydrotherapy. She also pooled her resources with a writer friend and stayed at Naulakha for five days. Now owned by England's Landmark Trust, the house is available for rent. It still contains many possessions Kipling left at his abrupt departure, "including books in the library, the bed, the desk, the bathtub, prints on the wall," Vinton says. "We definitely felt his presence in the house. I slept in Kipling's bed. I was taking notes and devouring material in his study."
The fictional elements of the book evolved slowly. "All I knew at the beginning was that I wanted a writer, and I wanted a child," Vinton says. As she researched, the facts compelled her to revise some of her original characterizations. For instance, she "had imagined that Caroline would be more nurturing and supportive than Addie," Joe's mother. But her sources suggested that the real Mrs. Kipling was "stern, possessive, controlling." "I had to quickly do some adjusting," Vinton says. The Addie Connolly of the final draft is "the most nurturing character in the book," while Caroline is a literal-minded taskmaster who keeps an eagle eye on her husband's productivity. Still, the two women are brought together when Addie helps Caroline through a brutal birth. "I wanted to attempt to be sympathetic and understanding to all the characters, who are all in their own ways attempting to do good in the world," Vinton says.
The novel's central conflict between Kipling and Jack Connolly plays out like a classic American collision of two cultures. The farmer is unlettered, focused on day-to-day survival, and suspicious of fiction as little better than lies. In his letters, Kipling disparaged such Vermonters as "aborigines" -- "men who brandish their ignorance like a hard-earned badge of honor," Vinton writes.
But the great writer clearly had his faults too, starting with the genteel racism embodied in that epithet. In Vinton's rendering, there's something fascinatingly selfish about Kipling's need to monopolize Joe's attention so that he can use the boy "to gauge the effects of [his] tale."
Do all tale tellers have such parasitical relationships with their listeners? Vinton quotes Joan Didion's assertion that writing is "'an aggressive, even a hostile act.' Writing is hard, solitary, a huge investment of time and energy," she explains. "At some level, writers want to be heard, to be listened to. Kipling pushed it further, and he did it particularly with children because it was the group he was most comfortable with."
Still, Joe listens willingly to Kipling because Mowgli's story expands his world. "I increasingly feel that stories are essential to us," Vinton says. "It's where wisdom about the world and the human condition resides, in the stories we pass down from generation to generation." Like the "jungle law" of the title, stories bring order to the world. It's a lesson that, the novel suggests, the "disciple" or listener sometimes learns better than his master.