Friday, April 11, 2008

Robert Louis Stevenson

by Robert Louis Stevenson
Recommended Age: 12+

This book is the adventure of a teenaged boy who didn't set out to have adventures. The setting is Scotland in about 1751, a few years after the Jacobite rebellion (in which a Scottish Catholic king named James Stewart lost the throne of England to a Saxon Protestant king named George - it's important to have this history when you read the story). The hero is David Balfour, a recent orphan in the Scottish lowlands who is supposedly sixteen years old at the beginning of the story, though by the end he claims to be eighteen and only months have gone by (oops). His family minister gives him a letter of introduction, written by his late father, to bear to his uncle Ebenezer who lives on the family estate outside Edinburgh. This is the first David even knew he had an uncle.

David goes to Edinburgh and finds out that Ebenezer Balfour is an infamous character, despised by his neighbors, living the life of a hermit and miser in an unfinished mansion and distrustful of everybody. Uncle Ebenezer distrusts David most of all, treats him poorly, even makes a cowardly attempt on the lad's life. Then under the pretense of visiting his lawyer in Edinburgh to settle the disposition of the family fortune, Ebenezer lures young David into the clutches of a sea captain and his crew, who have been paid by his uncle to kidnap David and take him to the American colonies & sell him into slavery, which was sometimes done before the United States became independent.

Well, not a good start for David, would you say? Capt. Hoseason and his officers turn out to be brutal drunks, greedy and treacherous too, particularly after they run into a boat in the fog and they bring the sole survivor on board. He turns out to be a Jacobite fugitive named Alan Breck Stewart - a man with a price on his head, whose life is already forfeit for treason and other crimes, and a man who has a money belt full of gold guinea-pieces which he is conveying from poor highland farmers to their clan-chief who is in exile in France. Hoseason and his crew decide to get the best of Alan, grab his money, and turn him over dead or alive to the authorities. But David warns Alan and the two of them, to make a short story of it, fight off the crew until the ship founders off the Scottish island of Mull.

After nearly drowning, nearly starving on a desert island, then nearly being mugged or worse on the road back to the mainland, David follows a trail of clues Alan has left for him to guide him to where they might meet again. He tramps through the Scottish highlands and you learn a lot about the plight of the highland clans under the oppressive Disarmament Act and the paranoid political oppression of King George, as well as the enmity between certain clans. None of this is David's fight, so he wisely tries not to take sides in it. But he gets embroiled by accident when he happens to meet a Scottish nobleman, Colin Campbell, at the exact time and place where Campbell is assassinated (it also so happens that Alan had sworn revenge on Campbell). And David, while chasing the murderer, runs into Alan himself and the two of them become fugitives from justice together, fleeing falsely accused of taking part in Campbell's death.

The greater part of the book, then, is the story of David and Allen's flight on foot across the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, being pursued by clan Campbell and the British army, and often narrowly escaping capture. As in Treasure Island, you see the winsome young hero in a really unfair and frustrating position, but he never stops to pity himself. In that case, it was Jim Hawkins being accused of being a coward when, by luck and pluck and impulsive courage he saved everybody's neck; in this case, it is David Balfour being hunted for murder, and sure that if caught he will not be given a fair trial and is as good as hung, all for being an innocent witness at the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to catch the real murderer.

Nevertheless, this isn't one of those adventure stories where the good guy is painted in rosy colors and the bad guys are black as soot. David has an unattractive side, which he admits in his narrative and shows openly: a streak of selfishness and a proud, unforgiving nature. He resents being caught up with Alan, who is a devout Jacobite (David is not) and they barely tolerate each other's views; he privately resents the obligation of friendship that compels him to stay by Alan's side, even though if they separated Alan would be the only one in danger. Their differences finally come to a head in a wonderful quarrel in the middle of wild Scotland, which I think is a beautiful example of characterization, a master-stroke of developing the relationship between two rich and lifelike characters.

Stevenson is good at that sort of thing, for his bad guys also are not all bad, but show surprising and sometimes paradoxical streaks of nobility - Long John Silver is the quintessential ambivalent character, a villain in the balance of things, but sometimes very attractive, sometimes pitiful, sometimes even noble. Capt. Hoseason of Kidnapped and his officers have varied and distinctive personalities, and again, surprising grains of honesty in their heart. Against all expectation, both Jim and David mourn the deaths of the very people you were happiest to see killed, and the fight goes out of the villains before there is any sort of climactic to-the-death battle like what you often see in movies, and so you see there are more complexities in the characters of Stevenson than you would expect in an adventure novel.

The story itself seems a bit of a ramble. You see a lot of Scotland, you get a glimpse of the way things lay after the rebellion, you meet some characters who are at one time attractive and frightening, you see a lot of big egos and clashes of pride (which must be a Scotch national pastime), you see men of vice and virtue and they're often the same person, and of course there are lots of heart-pounding adventures as well as misery and sickness for our poor hero. But mainly, it's the story of how David's flesh and blood sells him into servitude and how he makes his way home to get justice done to him, and how at great constant risk he is propelled mostly on foot across the whole width of Scotland in the meantime. And it's the story of a friendship between two men who, under any other circumstances, might have been enemies if they had cared about each other at all, and the severe tests under which that friendship not only stands up but grows stronger.

As a reader, even though David was the narrator and you feel many of his own frustrations and concerns, you find at times that you must take Alan's side - and that's where Stevenson goes above and beyond the call of duty as a creator of fictional persons and a teller of swashbuckling tales. This isn't just a story where you're expected to take the narrator's side just because it's his story; you learn his faults and shortcomings, yet you also learn to respect and love him - a development that for me, was completed in the scene where David says of a noble Scot named Cluny that if he ever hated a man, it was David Balfour. For the very reason that Cluny hated him, you'll love him.

If you read Kidnapped, you might want to make a vocab diary as you go along, because it uses a lot of Scottish words, and some of them are explained in footnotes and others you just have to smell out as they come along. We Americans are lucky if we understand "bonnie lass" and "braw muckle" and "wee bairn," and there's a lot more of that in the book. Words that for us end in "o," like go, to, so, etc., come out "gae, tae, sae," and so on; and the word "not" comes out as "no," and the word "all" as just "a'." Kind of like those sea adventures, where you have to put up with a lot of special terminology in order to enjoy the story, you have to be prepared for some unusual talk and develop a repertoire of Scottish words. All in all, it isn't very hard, and there's never a dull moment.

The story trails off at the end. The real story, I guess, has come full circle--David has returned to his family estate and "come into his kingdom," but the final fate of Alan is left hanging and what David does next would seem the stuff of another interesting adventure. In fact, the book ends with a note from the author to the effect that, if Kidnapped should become popular and successful, he would be willing to write a sequel out of his own love for Alan and David. In fact he did write that sequel; it was called Catriona, and I know nothing about it nor have I seen it at the bookstore, but I may try to get hold of it. Lovers of history and lovers of adventure and lovers of the craft of bringing fictional characters to life should all agree that Kidnapped is worth reading and that, afterward, one will feel a desire to find Catriona as well.

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Recommended Age: 10+

This classic tale of pirates and buried treasure has left its mark on our culture and the imagination of youth. I suppose with girls it may be a bit different than with boys... but the image of a one-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder and the song "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" go right to the heart of my memories of childhood pretend-games. This is a tale with treasure maps, mutinies, battles, close scrapes, and people who actually say "Shiver my timbers." One of the characters is actually called "Long John Silver." So you have an idea of what a classic this is?

The story came about when Stevenson, a Brit, married an American woman who had a son from a previous marriage. One day he and his stepson made a map to an imaginary "treasure island" together, and Stevenson decided to write a story to go with it. The story ended up becoming a big hit and changing adventure tales forever. It has also been filmed several times, including an oddly faithful futuristic adaptation in Disney's Treasure Planet.

It begins with a boy of about 13 years, named Jim Hawkins, the son of an innkeeper on the coast of England. Into the inn comes a sickly and paranoid old sailor who turns out to be Billy Bones, an ex-pirate, who has run away with the map to the island where the late great pirate Flint buried his treasure. Soon Billy Bones' ex-shipmates show up looking for the map, and the terror of them literally kills the old salt. They're nasty fellows, to be sure - a pasty man missing two fingers, named Black Dog, and a really sinister blind guy named Pew. But they're the least of Jim Hawkins' worries.

His father having died within days of Billy Bones' death, he has to protect his mother and their business from the pirates that are after him - so he goes to the local doctor and magistrate, Dr. Livesey, for help, and Livesey turns to the squire (the nobleman in charge of the district), and together with some of the squire's servants they fit out a ship and hire a crew and set out for the Treasure Island to get the loot for themselves.

BUT, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that most of the crew just happens to consist of Captain Flint's old crew, and their ringleader is the ship's cook, Long John Silver, affectionately called Barbecue by the crew. And yes, he has one leg and goes about on a wooden crutch and keeps a parrot that sometimes sits on his shoulder, and as soon as they get to the island Silver kills those members of the crew who refuse to join his conspiracy and starts to go after Jim and his friends. From then on it's all plot and counterplot, betrayal and deception, battle and search for buried treasure, and everyone on a razor's edge between killing and being killed.

R. L. Stevenson did not live a long or healthy life, but his writing has a lot of energy and charm and his characters are well drawn, and it really is quite an adventure. Jim is a young hero who will appeal to many of you in a similar way to Harry Potter, as he finds courage within himself and pulls off a few magic tricks of his own.

EDIT: Stevenson is also known for his poetry (my mother is particularly attached to his Child's Garden of Verses), and for the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Other adventure novels by Stevenson include The Black Arrow, Prince Otto, The Master of Ballantrae, and three more books co-written with the above-mentioned stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.

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