Friday, February 1, 2013

The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawaii by Jack London

Six powerful tales of race, class, and leprosy
The House of Pride, first published in 1912, is a collection of six short stories by Jack London, all of which take place in Hawaii. London traveled to Hawaii on at least three occasions, and it became the predominant setting for the writings of the second half of his career. He loved the climate and the landscape of the islands, and was fascinated by Polynesian history and culture.

London also liked writing about Hawaii because the setting gave him an opportunity to explore his favorite themes of race and class. He saw Hawaii as the ultimate melting pot, a South Pacific crossroads where people from all over the world came to mix, mingle, and interbreed. The white colonization of the islands also created a class struggle between the wealthy white traders, industrialists, and missionaries and the disenfranchised natives which formed their workforce. In the title selection, “The House of Pride,” a wealthy son of missionaries is forced to deal with the newfound discovery that a half-breed he despises is actually his half brother. In “Aloha Oe,” a teenage girl from the mainland falls in love for the first time. When she remembers, however, that her Romeo is of one-quarter native blood, she realizes that they can never be together. “Chun Ah Chun” is the rags-to-riches story of a Chinese peasant who, through relentless industriousness, becomes one of the wealthiest men on the islands. He is unable to find suitable husbands for his dozen daughters, however, because the eligible bachelors of the islands are unwilling to marry the daughter of a Chinese man. London handles the racism of his time matter-of-factly, alternately lamenting and mocking the discriminatory social conventions. Although London has occasionally been guilty of racial insensitivity in his works (see his portrayal of South Sea islanders in The Red One or South Sea Tales, for example), this book is free of such prejudice. He had a genuine admiration and respect for the Hawaiian people, which is quite evident in these stories.

In addition to his obsession with race and class issues, for whatever reason, London was fascinated by leprosy. The disease was present among the Hawaiian population during London’s time. Infected persons were confined to the leper colony on Molokai, which London once visited. In his stories London displays contradictory motives toward leprosy, on the one hand striving to offer an enlightened and educated perspective on the disease, while on the other hand revelling in the depiction of its hideous effects. In “Good-Bye, Jack!,” two wealthy white men debate the virtues of the leper colony, but their detached attitudes are shaken when the disease hits close to home. “Koolau the Leper,” the best story in the book, takes place in the secluded Kalalau Valley on the island of Kauai, where the brave and defiant Koolau leads a band of lepers in rebellion against the police and army bent on capturing them and shipping them off to Molokai. In “The Sheriff of Kona,” another excellent story, the title character, whose job it is to apprehend lepers, begins to show signs of having contracted the disease himself. These three stories all contain profoundly moving moments, as the characters are confronted by the disease or threatened with lifelong confinement. In London’s skillful hands these life and death struggles are rendered as extremely gripping and poignant scenes.

Though I have often considered London’s South Sea stories to be inferior to his Klondike tales, these six strong pieces have proven me wrong. The House of Pride is an excellent collection, on a par with some of this master storyteller’s best work.

Stories in this collection
The House of Pride 
Koolau the Leper 
Good-Bye, Jack! 
Aloha Oe 
Chun Ah Chun 
The Sheriff of Kona 

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