Monday, June 10, 2013

Adventure by Jack London

Not enough of what the title promises
To bestow the simple title of Adventure upon a novel is a pretty bold move. It’s almost a challenge of sorts, as if proclaiming that the book in question epitomizes its genre. If anyone could back up such an audacious claim, it would be Jack London, the premier adventure writer in American literature. Unfortunately, the choice of title for this novel is intended to be somewhat ironic. Adventure, originally published in 1911, doesn’t come close to living up to the excitement and romance inherent in its title.

David Sheldon, an Englishman, is proprietor of the copra (coconut meat) plantation of Berande, located on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The lone white man on his estate, he reigns over a staff of hundreds of native islanders who are technically indentured servants, but for all intents and purposes are treated like slaves. Sheldon rules his “blacks” with an iron hand, punishing them with whip and gun. The natives, in their turn, are continually attempting to rob and kill their white master, so any sign of weakness on his part is essentially an invitation to his own murder. As the novel opens, it appears Sheldon is about ready to die anyway, from one of the island’s pestilential diseases. Into this grim and dangerous world enters Joan Lackland, a spunky American woman who is shipwrecked off the shore of Berande. Joan is a proto-feminist who asserts her independence by drifting around the South Seas in search of fortune. A sort of overgrown tomboy, she has romantic notions of finding “adventure” among the islands, but soon discovers that her ideal is an elusive one. Sheldon, a gentleman trained in traditional notions of chivalry, has no clue how to deal with this modern liberated woman, and her arrival at Berande turns his world upside down.

It’s impossible to read about such subject matter without encountering some moments of cringeworthy racism, especially in a century-old book written by a white man. That said, Adventure inspires less disgust than London’s short story collection South Sea Tales, which deals with the same setting and subject matter. While in South Sea Tales the islanders are depicted as little more than wild animals, in Adventure they’re portrayed more as the unwashed masses ripe for revolution. The white characters actually debate over the proper methods of managing the blacks. One argues for strict and violent rule, while another advocates more humane measures and positive reinforcement. Despite this attempt at a balanced perspective, there is a constant and overarching assertion that it is the destiny of the whites to rule over the natives. London may question the abuse of the islanders, but he never questions the white man’s right to colonize the islands and exploit their resources.

The biggest disappointment of Adventure is that it concentrates so heavily on the daily management of the plantation. At times it resembles a Wild West ranching romance, only instead of wrangling cattle they’re wrangling human beings. I kept hoping Dave and Joan would go off on some mission and stumble upon some genuine adventure, but the thrills come too little too late. The ending of the book is a bit ludicrous, yet it provides some welcome action to the story. Ultimately, this novel suffers from the uncomfortable incongruity between its bleak setting and its rather frivolous plot. Adventure is not a badly written book. If you happen to be looking for a romantic comedy set in colonial Melanesia, this one may very well do the trick, but, after all, who’s really looking for that?

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