Friday, April 4, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Shakespeare of pirate speak
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island was originally published in serial format from 1881 to 1882 in the British periodical Young Folks. Despite its being aimed at young readers, these days Stevenson’s original text will more likely appeal to adult fans of classic historical fiction whose children are probably off reading about vampires or wizards. Other than the fact that it has a teenage protagonist, there’s really no obvious indication that the book was written for a juvenile audience. Stevenson doesn’t dumb down the language or ideas, nor does he shy away from violence, and the book is free from overt moralizing. Many adult readers vaguely recall Treasure Island from one of the myriad illustrated adaptations they encountered back in elementary school. If so, you may think you know Long John Silver, but if you haven’t read the actual text by Stevenson, do yourself a favor and give this exceptional book a try.

Jim Hawkins, a boy in his early teens, lives at an English coastal inn owned and operated by his parents. One day an old sailor named Billy Bones takes up residence at the inn. At first Jim is frightened by this rough-mannered, rum-drinking stranger, but through their daily interaction the two develop a tentative friendship of sorts, with Bones confiding his old pirate tales to the boy. Just as Jim begins to become accustomed to one salty old sea-dog, however, even scarier characters start showing up at the inn inquiring after Bones. Jim realizes that Bones has been hiding out from his former shipmates, and that the old sailor possesses something of great value that his dangerous colleagues will stop at nothing to get their hands on.

It should come as no surprise that there’s a treasure involved. Treasure Island is one of the few great genre-defining novels in the history of literature. So many of the trappings of pirate lore—peg legs, parrots, treasure maps, and knives clenched between teeth—were introduced to popular culture through Stevenson’s seminal work. One of the familiar chestnuts of pirate films—the invasive boarding of a ship amid sword clash and cannon fire—is notably absent from this book, since most of the action takes place on the titular island. Having been written in the 19th century, the book is not as action-packed as many of its later imitators. At times it can be quite talky, but that’s really a blessing rather than a curse, for Stevenson is the undisputed Shakespeare of pirate speak. The beautifully rendered dialects, slang, and unorthodox pronunciation of the various pirates is a joy to read, and as good as any dialogue that’s been written in the genre since.

To the 21st century reader the plot of the book is at times predictable, but it definitely contains enough twists and turns to maintain suspense. It feels like it takes an awfully long time to get to the island, but perhaps Stevenson just does such a good job of inspiring eagerness that one can’t wait to open the treasure chest. Though this is a tale of epic adventure, there’s not a lot of romanticized heroics, and as for the pirates, there’s clearly little honor among these thieves. The characters’ behavior is generally motivated by self-interest, which brings a touch of realism to the proceedings that modern readers will appreciate.

Treasure Island has held up extremely well over the past 130 years, and anyone who enjoys adventure fiction should definitely put it on the top of their reading list. While the term “classic” is bandied about perhaps too often, and applied to books of every stripe, Treasure Island is a book that truly deserves the designation, in every sense of the word.

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