by Brad Nelson 11/6/13
First off, the best map of Treasure Island that I could find is this one. And this is a book in which, for propriety’s sake (pirate’s sake?), you need the feel of a good treasure map in your hand or at hand. It helps in finding your way around. This is a terrific novel, but Stevenson’s descriptions of geography are sometimes confusing. Maybe he knew he needed the help because he included a map in his original book.
Treasure Island is a book that I didn’t suppose that I needed to read. It’s just a kid’s story after all, right? Well, I was surprised (and delighted) by the very non-kid-like grit in this story. It’s certainly not a children’s book, per se. Its reading level falls somewhere between Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe, although nearer Crusoe than Moby Dick, for sure. And having seen a movie or three made from this book, surely you’d have no further reason to read it, right? And there have indeed been some good movies.
But although Treasure Island is indeed full of very colorful, even stereotypical characters (it could be argued, however, that Stevenson helped invent those stereotypes to begin with), the movies have tended to exaggerate a bit too much. They have tended to turn the characters into one-dimensional caricatures. But Treasure Island has a lot more meat on its Billy Bones than the impression likely left in your mind from the movie adaptations. This is one of the better plot- and character-driven books in memory. And it contains some exquisite passages such as this:
But it was not its size that now impressed my companions; it was the knowledge that seven hundred thousand pounds in gold lay somewhere buried below its spreading shadow. The thought of the money, as they drew nearer, swallowed up their previous terrors. Their eyes burned in their heads; their feet grew speedier and lighter; their whole soul was found up in that fortune, that whole lifetime of extravagance and pleasure, that lay waiting there for each of them.
Then I looked around me, and as the ship was now, in a sense, my own, I began to think of clearing it from its last passenger–the dead man, O’Brien.
He had pitched, as I have said, against the bulwarks, where he lay like some horrible, ungainly sort of puppet, life-size, indeed, but how different from life’s colour or life’s comeliness! In that position I could easily have my way with him, and as the habit of tragical adventures had worn off almost all my terror for the dead, I took him by the waist as if he had been a sack of bran and with one good heave, tumbled him overboard. He went in with a sounding plunge; the red cap came off and remained floating on the surface; and as soon as the splash subsided, I could see him and Israel lying side by side, both wavering with the tremulous movement of the water. O’Brien, though still quite a young man, was very bald. There he lay, with that bald head across the knees of the man who had killed him and the quick fishes steering to and fro over both.
So what kind of story is this and why would you want to read it? Well, I’m not sure I’d call it a coming-of-age story for young (12-15 years old?) Jim Hawkins. We don’t much delve into his mindset. He’s a brave and adventurous lad, for sure. But until he went to sea, he simply worked in an inn and was quite sedentary. And then when he did go to sea, he certainly proved quite adept at adventure. But there wasn’t much grand hand-wringing and introspection about this transition. It just happens in an instant, more or less. I found this to be a story that was about the action and characters rather than introspection about the action and characters, although it did have that at times. It’s the well-described immediacy-of-the-moment that makes it so engaging rather than standing a bit above or off to the side and thinking further about that moment.
But it is not shallow. I found this book so refreshingly free of pretension. It doesn’t try to puff itself up. Stevenson simply wanted to write a grand adventure and he did so, and seems to offer no apologies for doing just that. The characters and plot, although they’ve become stereotypes via the movies, are fresh and vital in the novel. They have not had the life rung out of them by becoming too exaggerated and larger than life.
The only flaw of note is the plausibility that the adventure party of the good-guys (led by Captain Smollett) would ever have let Silver back in with them as even a semi-trusted companion. That made no sense and is a notable flaw in the ending. But beyond that, I just have so little to fuss about. This is a great read, and just because you’ve seen the movies made from it ad nauseum doesn’t mean reading the book is pointless. In retrospect, I’ve never truly known this great story before I read the book, despite having seen many movies and miniseries made from it.
This review should be shorter than it is because Treasure Island isn’t a book that you talk about. It’s a book that you read. But if we did talk about it, we might agree that it’s one of those novels (like Tom Sawyer) that describes an age of boyish (and adult) adventure, danger, and reverie that is for the ages. This isn’t the only way to write an action/adventure book, but it’s one of the ways, and Stevenson probably had some part in creating an iconic way for the great adventure story. He didn’t just capture the attitudes of his age or the state-of-the-art of the art of writing. He captured something much more timeless. It’s this same honest, adventurous, simple, gritty, good-guyness that so enlivens the original Star Wars trilogy before Lucas decided that goofy and overly-complex were what made for great adventure. But Treasure Island is the model for how it’s done. Ironically, speaking of seafaring novels, this is a book that I wish had been 150 pages longer. It’s not missing anything, but Stevenson is so in the zone that you wish that, here and there, he would have elaborated just a bit.
Forget the movies. Read the book. Even if you are an adult. Especially if you are an adult.