I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. Decades, probably. I think it’s the only Kipling book aimed at young readers that I hadn’t read, and is often cited, along with “Tom Brown’s School Days” (which I read about ten years ago) as the most important early British school stories. I found it was a free download for my iPad from Apple recently, so I decided to read the ebook (not the first edition shown above).
“Tom Brown’s School Days” shares some qualities with this book. Both have groups of high-spirited boys engaged in all kinds of hijinks, pranks, bullying, and other escapades. Tom Brown is into sports, though, and the book famously gave British Rugby football a large boost in popularity. Stalky and his two partners in crime McTurk and Beetle hold sports in distain and avoid it as much as possible. Instead, they are literary types: reading and reciting poetry, putting on plays, and going on nature walks, though the latter are mainly a way to get out from under watchful eyes and have smoke.
The book is entertaining if you can read it. It’s full of nearly impenetrable school jargon and British boys slang from the period (1890s). As a longtime Anglophile I usually have no trouble with this sort of thing, but much of what the boys said, especially early in the book, was hard to follow. As you go on it gets easier in context. Stalky is the brains behind the company’s best-planned exploits, and there are some clever ones, with professors usually the target, especially their nemesis King, who they are often at war with. Other students also come into the line of fire when they try to bully or cross the three.
There are some moments of cooperation with school goals here and there, and Stalky and Co. are not always going in the wrong direction. The headmaster seems to know this, and even when he punishes them, he does it with a knowing smile, as if he was just that sort of student himself once. The character of Beetle is in fact supposed to be based on Kipling, and the school one he attended.
Surprisingly, many of the boys are aiming at a military officer career, and at the end of the book is a sort of coda telling how they fared in the army in India, as some of the schoolmates reunite to share stories from the battlefields and postings there. Stalky, as you might expect, comes out as a clever and heroic soldier. In this way the book becomes a tract of pro-military propaganda that might have convinced a fair number of British boys to head in the same direction. Something Kipling would probably have considered a worthwhile achievement.
In all, I enjoyed the book, though it was sometimes a slog getting through the slang to meaning. Recommended.