“It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times…”

Jack London’s short story, “The Chinago.”

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My short story reading project for 2012 is winding down, with just a few stories to go. The latest I read was The Chinago. It takes place on a plantation in Tahiti, which is worked by some 500 Chinese laborers, who are called by their French overseers “Chinagos.” A murder has been committed on this plantation, and the French have rounded up five suspects (I don’t know if they were the usual ones or not – I am hearing the voice of Casablanca’s Major Renault in the back of my head as I’m typing these words), none of whom are guilty. The story’s protagonist, named Ah Cho, on top of the fact that he and his fellow accused men know who really did commit the murder, marvels at how five men can be accused of murder when the victim was stabbed twice (“at most this was the work of two men”).

The story illustrates how the French colonists barely thought of the Chinese laborers as human, and we repeatedly hear the phrase “just a Chinago” as if they mattered less than other people. The story also involves a case of mistaken identity with tragic consequences, and yet another execution (so much of my reading this year has involved executions, not by design but rather coincidence) this time by guillotine. I don’t want to write any more about the detail of the plot – I want this post to remain spoiler-free. 🙂

A copy of the story may be read for free online

I do have a copy of this story “somewhere” in my library in one of my many short story anthologies, but when it came time to read it, I wasn’t home, but at one of my favorite coffee shops so I searched for it on line and found it. This set me thinking about how wonderful it is to live in such an age of easily accessible information as we do. I remember reading one of my all-time favorite books, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and how, when Franklin was young, he was so desperate for books and reading material. How much easier it is for us today. Even if this story wasn’t available for free in the public domain, I could surely have bought and downloaded it in a couple minutes as well. I wonder what Franklin, with his hungry intellect, would think of that?

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Jack London.  What have you read by him?

(below: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This is the same cover as the edition I have.  Mine has nearly disintegrated from being read so many times)

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