Saturday, March 29, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My History With This Book
          This was my favorite book as a child.  Even though I never actually read it.
            Like a lot of my early exposure to the classics, I only encountered this book in abridged and simplified versions.
            Around 5 or 6 years old, I was given the Fisher Price version of this story (LINK HERE), which consisted of a comic book accompanied by an audio tape.  And I listened and re-listened to that tape over and over and over again until I had it memorized backwards and forwards.
            Seeing that I was hungry for more, my parents bought me other versions of the story.  I had a couple different versions of Treasure Island around the house, but all of them abridged. 
            My dad bought me a VHS copy of the 1950 Disney movie of Treasure Island (W), and a few years later when the TNT Treasure Island television movie  (W) came out, I also recorded that off the TV.  Both movie versions I also watched and re-watched many times over.  I was also obsessed with Return to Treasure Island (W), which used to be re-run on the Disney channel, and which I watched over and over again.
            The story fascinated me, and influenced my imagination and for several years my own stories were often based on pirates.
            However, the original text—the unabridged Robert Louis Stevenson book—was always a struggle for me.
            My school had a copy of Treasure Island in its library, and when I was in first and second grade I checked the book out several times.  It was a hard read for a 6 or 7 year old.  I could understand most of it, and if I had had the perseverance I could have struggled through to the end, but it was more work than it was enjoyment, and I always gave up after a few chapters.
            The fact that I already knew the story, and was just trying to read the original for the sake of a few extra details, also made the book more work than pleasure.
            And yet. after a few months, I would go back to the library, check the book out again, and start all over from the beginning to try and finally finish it.  (I always had to re-start the book from the beginning every time.  For some reason, it never occurred to me to just try and pick off from where I left off last time.  In a sign that I was already very anal retentive even as a young boy, I thought that when you read a book you always had to go from the beginning to the end.)
            The farthest I ever got into the original book was when Jim sneaks back aboard the Hispaniola.  For anyone not acquainted with the story, this is about 3/4th of the way through the book, and I was almost finished with the story.  But I gave up there, and left the book unfinished.
            (To be fair to myself, this was a difficult read for a 7 year old.  Especially all the nautical terminology and descriptions were a bit much for a mid-western boy who had never even seen the ocean.  For example from chapter 25: “I had scarce gained a position on the bowspirit, when the flying jib flapped and filled upon the other tack, with a report like a gun.  The schooner trembled to her keel under the reverse; but the next moment, the other sails still drawing, the jib flapped back again, and hung idle.  This had nearly tossed me off into the sea; and now I lost no time, crawled back along the bowspirit, and tumbled head foremost on the deck.  I was on the lee side of the forecastle, and the mainsail, which was still drawing, concealed from me a certain portion of the after-deck. Not a soul was to be seen. The planks, which had not been swabbed since the mutiny, bore the print of many feet; and an empty bottle, broken by the neck, tumbled to and fro like a live thing in the scuppers.  Suddenly the Hispaniola came right into the wind.  The jibs behind me cracked aloud; the rubber slammed to; the whole ship gave a sickening heave and shudder, and at the same moment the main-boom swung inboard, the sheet groaning in the blocks, and showed me the lee after deck.” …et cetera )

            And after that, I gave up on Treasure Island.  (After having nearly finished the book, I just didn’t have it in me to start all the way from the beginning again.) 
            I moved on to other Robert Louis Stevenson books instead.
            Around 3rd grade, I read Kidnapped (W) (a book I became interested in after having seen the Disney movie (W).) 
            Kidnapped I actually did manage to read to the end, although it was also more work than pleasure at the time, and I didn’t understand many parts of it.
            Around 5th grade, I tried to read Black Arrow (W), but also found it hard work, and lost interest in it half-way through.
            I ended up concluding that I liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s ideas a lot better than I liked his prose, and decided to leave it at that.

Why I Returned to This Book Now
          It’s always kind of bugged me that I never read to the end of Treasure Island.  And, having mentioned Treasure Island in a couple of posts recently, I decided that if I was going to go around calling Treasure Island one of my favorite books, the least I could do was to read it all the way through. 
            At the age of 35, this book no longer intimidates me the way it did when I was 6.  And when I was going on a holiday recently, I thought this would be the perfect kind of light-reading to throw in my backpack.

Why I’m Reviewing This Book
            Normally I only use this book review project for new reads, and not for books that I’ve re-read.
            This book is borderline, because only the last 75 pages was being read for the first time.
            But actually, even for the first 3/4s of the book, even though I had once upon a time read it before, after 30 years it had mostly faded in the memory, and I was probably due to re-read it anyway.  (I think my memory must be better suited to spoken words rather than written, because the fisher-price audio tape that accompanied the comic book version of Treasure Island I still remarkably well all these years later.  But Robert Louis Stevenson’s original words were largely forgotten.)

The Review
          First of all, as for the prose and readability, add Robert Louis Stevenson to the - long - list - of  - authors - with whom I struggled as a child, but who I now find remarkably easy and enjoyable as an adult.  I read the whole book in two days.  I found it an absolute pleasure from start to finish.

            Exactly what age is the perfect age for this book I’m not sure.  Especially since all children mature at different rates.  (No doubt there are people out there who could read and enjoy this book at a much earlier age than me.)  And I also suspect popular writing styles may have changed slightly over time, perhaps making this book less accessible to children than when it was first published in 1883.  But nowadays I’d probably put the ideal reader for this book at about 13 or 14. (Feel free to disagree with me.)
            As for the story:
            Right, well, if you read my lengthy pre-amble above, you know I’m obviously not approaching this book from the perspective of a blank-slate.  And I have enough childhood nostalgia for this story which makes it difficult to review it objectively.  (I mean, all reviews are subjective anyway, but….)
            The story of pirates on a mysterious tropical island immediately returns to memory all the feelings of exotic adventure I had reading this book as a child.
            Also the pirates are forever frozen in my memory as terrifying boogie-men, almost like mythical monsters.

            Had this story been completely new to me, how I would have reacted as an adult?  I can’t say.
            But, although my opinion may be biased by nostalgia, I still consider this book one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.

            As for the characters:
            The characterization is uneven.  Most of the good-guys are barely defined, and easily forgettable.  Many of them are never developed beyond a name, and exist solely for the purpose of dying at key battles.  If this were Star Trek, they would be wearing red shirts.
            (As a child, I had always been slightly confused by the characters Alan, Tom, Joyce, Hunter, Redruth and Gray?  Who were these people?  They popped up in the story, but I had no idea who they were.  I had always thought that this was because I hadn’t read the full unabridged version, and that if I read the full story from start to finish than all the characters would be fully fleshed out.  But now I know it’s just as bad in the original.)

            Even the major characters, Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett are barely defined beyond a couple identifiable characteristics.
            The main character and narrator, Jim Hawkins, is mostly just a blank slate.  His main purpose is to serve as a generic boy for young boy readers to vicariously experience the adventure through.  There’s shockingly little description of his family life.  His father dies early on in the book, but it’s barely even mentioned.

            Nowadays, I don’t think an author would get away with such little character development.  (Although I don’t know—I admit I have read modern young adult stories that are even worse in this regard.)

            But it’s not that Robert Louis Stevenson can’t do interesting characters when he wants to.  It’s more that, as is often said of Milton, all the interesting characterization goes to the devils.  The pirates are the real stars of this story, and Stevenson makes them larger than life.

            Billy Bones, the first pirate that Jim Hawkins meets, is very colorful.  Jim isn’t sure whether to be terrified of him, or feel sorry for him, and this ambivalence is passed onto the reader.  We know he’s being hunted down for something, but at the same time we can see how fierce and terrifying he is.
            Blind Pew and Black Dog, the pirates who come looking for Billy Bones, are even more frightening. 

            Long John Silver is the most interesting of the pirates.  He can be just as frightening as the other pirates, and we see him murder several times in cold blood.  (One of the book’s most chilling scenes is when Tom becomes unnerved by someone’s death screams, and Long John Silver casually informs him that it’s the sound of Alan being murdered.)
            But what’s unique about Silver is that he can also be very good at appearing friendly and turning on the charm when he wants to. 
            We see Silver charm several people throughout the book, including Jim.
            It’s always a source of uncertainty to Jim (and hence to the reader as well) whether Silver genuinely likes him, or whether he’s just being manipulative for his own ends.  This question is never answered when Silver disappears at the end of the book.  Had there ever been any good in him, or had he just really good at playing everyone?

            One of the most interesting things about this book is the back story.  The story of what happened to Captain Flint and the lost treasure is only revealed gradually.  (Captain Flint, although he was dead before the story even begins, is really one of the major characters in the book.  His spirit seems to haunt the whole story, so it’s no surprise that the pirates readily believe they are hearing his ghost at the end.) 
            Just as Greek myths always reference the heroes and monsters of old, there’s a sense running through Treasure Island that everyone regards the old days of Captain Flint as a kind of pirate mythology.  And this adds to the mystic of the book.

Other Notes
* The inspiration for King Solomon’s Mines was apparently that H. Rider Haggard read Treasure Island, and was inspired to try and create a similar adventure novel.  But in my opinion, King Solomon’s Mines is nowhere near the same class as Treasure Island. 

* According to Wikipedia (W), J.M. Barrie was good friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, and so connected the story of Treasure Island with his own novel Peter Pan.  In one section of the book, Captain Hook is aware of Captain Flint, and Long-John Silver (who Hook refers to as Barbecue, which was Silver’s nickname among the pirates).
            I had somehow managed to miss this in my readings of Peter Pan, but it’s nice to know that my two favorite childhood books are connected.

* The 7 year old me might disagree, but the adult me can safely add this book to my list of Classic books Which Are Actually Fun to Read.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky (July, 2013) "The Corporatization of the University"

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