Monday, October 13, 2014

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not enough Treasure Island, too much Waverley
These days Robert Louis Stevenson is best remembered for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but another of his novels that consistently appears on lists of the greatest adventure books of all time is Kidnapped. Although no doubt a hit with the adolescent boys of 1886, today’s fans of classic literature might find themselves wondering why this rather dull adventure is still worthy of note.

The story takes place in 1751. David Balfour, a Scottish youth, is orphaned at the age of 17. The local minister, a friend of the family, gives David a letter of introduction to an uncle he’s never met, Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. David, who grew up poor, is surprised to find his father’s surname connected with a wealthy estate like that of Shaws. He travels to the seaside city of Cramond in hopes that his uncle will aid him in securing a position by which he might make a living. Far from welcoming his nephew with open arms, however, the curmudgeonly Uncle Ebenezer greets his long lost relative with disdain, grants him the minimum of hospitality, and even threatens to do him harm. Under the pretense of conducting some business related to his father’s estate, Ebenezer leads David to the harbor, where the boy is introduced to a ship’s captain named Hoseason. After being lured aboard the captain’s brig, David is taken captive. Through his uncle’s evil scheming, he is to be transported to America and sold as a plantation slave.

That brief synopsis certainly sounds like it has the making of a great adventure novel. The problem with Kidnapped is that so little of the book has to do with the kidnapping. The scenes aboard the ship are by far the best in the book, but Stevenson soon abandons the nautical narrative in favor of a plot line involving the Jacobite Uprising, in which Scottish Highlanders rose up against the reigning British monarch in an attempt to reestablish the Stuart dynasty on the throne. The story here is based on a real historical event called the Appin Murder, which would have been common knowledge to the readers of Stevenson’s day. David finds himself mixed up with a bunch of lawless Highlander rebels, and the novel suffers for it. Having recently read Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, imagine my chagrin to find Stevenson boring me to tears with the same subject matter. After its auspicious beginning, the novel devolves into chapter after chapter of uneventful pursuit. There’s a whole lot of going places but not much getting there. The plot is quite predictable, and Stevenson concludes the whole thing with a half-baked ending.

Much like Walter Scott, Stevenson was worshipped as a god by many notable writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of whom penned tales of shanghaied sailors far more satisfying than Kidnapped, among them The Sea-Wolf by Jack London and Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris. Kidnapped just doesn’t contain enough of that old Treasure Island magic. With the exception of one good action scene aboard the brig, the thrills aren’t thrilling enough and the bad guys aren’t scary enough. In 1893, Stevenson published a sequel to Kidnapped called Catriona. After reading this disappointing book, however, accompanying David Balfour on another adventure is the last thing I want to do.

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