Book Review: Treasure Island

TreasureIslandThumbby 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.

And grit:

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 TreasureIslandMapaction 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. • (6057 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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8 Responses to Book Review: Treasure Island

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    We used to have a book with 3 Stevenson novels in it; I read Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but never got around to reading Kidnapped. (In 1998 Elizabeth and I were Fan GOHs at Windycon — the chairman that year was a FOSFAX subscriber, though fatal pancreatic cancer kept him from attending — I was on a panel on Jekyll and Hyde, but didn’t know about it in advance. So I had to discuss it purely from memory. After we got back I checked our copy (from a volume of gothic novels), and decided there was very little I would have said that was different.

    The only versions I can recall seeing of Treasure Island were the Mr. Magoo one from the mid-60s and the later TV movie with Charlton Heston as Silver. Of course, the book shows up in many references even aside from a fast-food franchise that often uses ads harking back to the book. When we moved to Louisville in 1966 after my father was killed in Vietnam, there was a high-class hotel restaurant called the Admiral Benbow. And Lost in Space once had an episode featuring a hunt for “Billy Bones’s treasure” (which turned out to be cannonballs; he came from a planet that had no iron to speak of).

    • faba calculo says:

      OK, Timothy, I’ve been meaning to ask for a while: what is FOFAX?

      And is it really based in Louisville, KY? I ask because I spent some of my VERY early years there, having been born in Lexington, KY.

      P.S. Sorry, I know that this is non-germane to this topic, but my curiosity has reached critical mass, and if I don’t get an answer soon, it’s going to blow and take out most of DC.

      P.P.S. Aw, crap. Now you AREN’T going to answer, are you? 😉

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I haven’t sent in for a copy of FOSFAX, but it’s on my list of things to do. I’m also curious about it.

        I’m hoping that Tim can perhaps get a sample of a few pages in pdf format and we’ll host them here.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I was thinking of offering to send you a copy when we finally complete the current issue (120 pages, perhaps 122, though that’s an unusually large issue). It only exists on paper, so we would need a mailing address. (Incidentally, I have a few short last-minute reviews — Mugged, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, and perhaps Killing Jesus — which mention that I have a longer review here.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Woo hoo! I’d love to get a free sample. I’ll even do a review and try to get you some sales (shill, shill). I’ll email you my mailing address, Tim. Thanks.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        FOSFAX is a science-fiction fanzine, originally published on behalf of the Falls of the Ohio Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. As the organization itself has gone effectively defunct (like many social groups), the fanzine remains (barely) afloat, published by me and my housemate (Elizabeth Garrott) with money largely provided by a friend of ours.

  2. Kung Fu Zu says:

    I remember the film with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper.

    If you enjoy Stevenson, you could have a look at some of his lesser known books such as

    “The Master of Ballantrae”, “The Black Arrow” and “The Wrong Box”. The last is something of a comedy. I read all three earlier this year after downloading them onto my Kindle. They were free.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I may indeed check out one of those Stevenson novels. Thanks for the recommendations.

      I started watching the Heston version of Treasure Island the other day. I’m not blown away by it so far. I hope my review got across the notion that the book (as is so often the case) is better than the movie. I think it’s just the kind of story that fires the imagination when read as literature and tends to get watered down in cinematic form.

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