Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Treasure Island


Cover by NC Wyeth - possibly one 
of the most wonderful illustrators that has ever lived. 



Treasure Island is a great book and like many great books, grew out of a small act. Stevenson's step-son was drawing one day and his step-father looking over his shoulder, saw that he was drawing a map. They spent the day naming the places and colouring it. And from the map came the book.

It is a simple story told by a boy on the cusp of manhood and therein lies its power. Jim Hawkins is a boy telling a story to other boys and his nature is reflected in the telling. There is no navel gazing or reflection in him, he doesn't agonize over killing or worry about the morality of taking buried treasure. Unlike his contemporaries in Victorian fiction, whose scruples often verge on the priggish, Jim's moral compass is personal, his loyalty to his mother and to his friends. His is a conscience rooted in the eighteenth century, his goals are clear and their simplicity and single mindedness drive the story forward.



Wyeth again - when I was a small boy, this image filled me with indescribable dread. 

But even in this celebration of the 18th century love affair with laissez faire capitalism, Stephenson finds a place for evil. It is a grinning, grubby, chatty evil, far removed from the starkly painted moral monsters of children's fiction. Long John Silver is a murderer, a pirate and a scoundrel, but he is also charming, capable and a leader of men. Jim enjoys his company despite himself. Though Jim hates Silver for his cruelty, he admires him for his daring as all boys admire those who defy parental or scholastic authority with panache. In some ways there is little to choose between Long John and Jim, both pursue the treasure, Long John is simply willing to use brutal means to obtain it.

The Jim we meet at the beginning of the novel is a boy, bound to his mother and weighed down by childish things. By the end, he has encountered dangers, both moral and physical, and survived. He has mastered new skills and entered man's estate. For the rest of us, reading Treasure Island could be considered a vital part of that passage.


You will find a particularly fine audiobook version of Treasure Island here

Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. 

11 comments:

  1. I first read Treasure Island at age about ten. That (roughly) is the right age for a first reading, as you absorb all the atmosphere and suspense of the story. But I can't recall how many times I've read it since, the last just a couple of years ago. Great, great story.

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  2. I was just thinking as I closed off my previous comment, that at age ten, and having read something already of Magellan's circumnavigation and the corsairs of the Mediterranean Sea, there is an eerie evocativeness of the couplet, sung I think by one of the pirates:
    "But one man of her crew alive
    What put to sea with seventy-five."

    Arr - thems were the days, an' a'.

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  3. N C Wyeth's son grew up to be a most interesting painter whose work is well work a look too...

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    1. I did not know that - thank you. I will look into him.

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  4. I re-read this book last year for the first time in 30+ years and found it had lost none of it's charm .

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    1. It is like poetry - you can open it at any page and find something.

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  5. We have a local link here with RLS - he was related to the Dale family who now own most of the surrounding farmland where I live, but in RLS's days they were tenant farmers at Scoughall, where he spent a number of childhood holidays and learned the old tales of the coast and its traditions - his short story "The Wreckers" has its roots in an older folk tale called "The Pagans of Scoughall" which described how the wild people here used to lure boats onto the rocks.

    Local (tourist) legend here is that some of Treasure Island had its origin in trips he made to the uninhabited islet of Fidra, off the East Lothian shore near Dirleton.

    I'm sure there a dozen other places that make similar claims…!

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    1. No doubt, but they are claims worth making.

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  6. The children's edition of Treasure Island was the first book I ever read on my own, from beginning to end... I still remember the pictures as being bright (and big!) - I've not read it since, I really must revisit it...

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