Friday, August 30, 2013

On the Makaloa Mat by Jack London

London’s Hawaiian swan song
On the Makaloa Mat is a collection of seven short stories by Jack London, all of which are set in Hawaii. The book was published posthumously in 1919, and contains some of the last stories he wrote before his death. They are all tales of love, family, or friendship, told against the background of Hawaiian history, customs, and lore. Often they focus on the interaction between two dichotomous characters—one representing the old, authentic ways of Hawaiian life; the other representing the new, modern Hawaii under the “civilizing” influence of white colonization. London compares and contrasts these two sides of island life without playing favorites.

The best story in the book is “Shin-Bones,” in which a modern, Oxford-educated Hawaiian prince recalls a life-changing adventure from his youth. To satisfy his superstitious mother’s obsession with bone collecting, he accompanied an aged servant on a perilous quest to recover the hidden remains of his ancestors. In a story of similar subject matter, “The Bones of Kahekili,” a wealthy, white rancher persuades his elderly servant to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of an old Hawaiian chieftain and the mysterious events surrounding his burial. “The Tears of Ah Kim” tells the story of a Chinese grocer in Honolulu who incurs the wrath of his aged mother when he reveals his intention to marry a young widow. Mother feels the bride-to-be is too modern, too liberal, and too westernized for her son. In “The Water Baby,” an educated young Hawaiian man is treated to a folk tale while he accompanies a poor, elderly fisherman on a squid hunt. “The Kanaka Surf,” about a love triangle in Waikiki, is easily the worst story in the book. Modern romance was never London’s strong suit.

The stories in this collection exemplify London’s mature writing style, for better or for worse. Over the course of his career, London’s skill as a writer developed immensely. He was a much more proficient wordsmith at the end of his career than he was when he started. As he gained confidence and facility in his writing, his plots became more complex, his characters more fully realized, and his insight into human psychology more subtle and nuanced. Yet, much of his later work lacks the forceful directness and simple, crowd-pleasing fun of his earlier work. In his later years, he developed an annoying tendency to riddle his stories with unnecessary tangential digressions. By throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, he comes across as overly concerned with showing off his erudition and wit at the expense of a satisfying plot. In the stories included here, for example, each character is introduced with a detailed genealogical pedigree. Places casually mentioned in conversation are almost invariably accompanied by a superfluous side story of “Remember what happened there?” At times the dialogue resembles two people reading the index of a Hawaiian atlas. All the local color and atmosphere that London heaps into these tales adds authenticity to the setting but hinders the narrative momentum. The stories in this collection are all rather long, and most seem overloaded with gratuitous filler.

On the Makaloa Mat is a good collection of stories, but not one of London’s best. As far as his Hawaiian stories go, his earlier collection The House of Pride and Other Stories is better overall. Nevertheless, a few of the gems included here make this book necessary reading for true fans of London.

Stories in this collection
On the Makaloa Mat 
The Bones of Kahekili 
When Alice Told Her Soul 
The Water Baby 
The Tears of Ah Kim 
The Kanaka Surf 

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