A Son of the Sun by Jack London (1912)

Review by Sylvia D

A Son of the Sun is a collection of short stories, all of which originally ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1911 and all of which feature the adventures of Captain David Grief, a self-made fleet and plantation owner plying his trade in the South Pacific. Grief owns a number of sailing vessels and each story features a different one so we meet a motley collection of crew members as they experience thrilling and daring do exploits whilst trading around the islands.

The first story, the title story, which I gather has been cut from some editions of the book, probably because of its extremely racist language comparing black islanders to monkeys, presents the reader with a portrait of Grief,

‘Heavy muscled he was, but he was not lumped and hummocked by muscles. They were softly rounded, and when they did move, slid softly and silkily under the smooth, tanned skin. Ardent suns had likewise tanned his face till it was swarthy as a Spaniard’s. The yellow moustache appeared incongruous in the midst of such swarthiness, while the clear blue of the eyes produced a feeling of shock on the beholder’ – (p 10).

The reader also soon learns that Grief is moderate in his drinking and a ‘straight’ man, unlike so many of the traders, card-players, adventurers and pirates he comes into contact with. When he offers to set up an arrogant newly arrived from Australia as a trader after defeating him in a card game, he sets out very moralistic rules of engagement which the Australian is charged with repeating aloud every morning for two years – (A Goboto Night – pp 175-6).

Herein lies a weakness in the characterisation as Grief is always portrayed as a purveyor of rough justice in his dealings with others which makes him rather one-dimensional. In A Son of the Sun Grief plays a wily trick on another captain who is trying to make his escape without paying Grief back a loan. In the other stories he sets about toughening up a green young alcoholic newly out from England but with no qualms about cheating the local people on one island in the process, outwits pirates, unmasks imposters, and rids the king of one island of a Irish rogue who is fleecing him and his people. In the final story, The Pearls of Parlay, when he is moored in a lagoon with a number of other traders to attend a reclusive old miser’s pearl auction, he survives a tremendous and vividly depicted hurricane whilst most of the other traders’ boats are smashed to pieces.

It is very much a violent, man’s world. The only women are nearly all either brothel keepers or women islanders who are always portrayed as ‘giggling’. The only strong woman character is Queen Sepeli, the wife of the King of Fitu-Iva, who controls her gin-loving husband by thumping him to get what is necessary done,

‘She doubled up her fist, and such were her Amazonian proportions and the determination in her face that Grief knew the council would be called’ – (p 199).

The stories are thrilling, full of local colour, native slang, nautical terminology and wonderful words like ‘lollygagging’. The problem for the modern reader is that they are set within a framework of colonialism and riddled with racist language. However London is not always unquestioning of the way the colonial powers and the white traders and administrators treated the islanders. In The Jokers of New Gibbon he has three white men pay the ultimate price for playing practical jokes on an island chief and in The Feathers of the Sun there is an interesting expose of why the island of Fitu-Iva had remained ‘the last independent Polynesian stronghold in the South Seas.’   It survived because

‘Japan, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States discovered its desirableness simultaneously. It was like gamins scrambling for a penny . . . The war vessels of the five Powers cluttered Fitu-Iva’s one small harbour. There were rumours of war and threats of war’ – (p 180).

In the end the colonial powers couldn’t agree and left the island to itself.

A Son of the Sun wouldn’t be my choice of reading but it was interesting to read one example of the work of an author I have never tried before.

3 thoughts on “A Son of the Sun by Jack London (1912)

  1. It definitely sounds like you need to be selective with London. I confess to not being attracted to his adventure-style stories at all, though his deeper works (like The People of the Abyss) do appeal!

  2. Being more of a useless word-lover than an adventure reader (or perhaps I should say ‘lover of antiquated words’ and be kinder to myself) I just have to comment on that wonderful quote you chose to use…lumped and hummocked muscles that slid softly under smooth skin…? Wow. A veritable feast right there! No wonder the overall effect had a feeling of shock on the beholder. Enjoyed your thoughtful review. I tend to enjoy the older books because they wrote with such vigor of personality…EXCEPT for that certain tone you mention; am often brought up short by the reality of the narrow, socially/racially constricted world they lived in.

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