Robert Louis Stevenson,
Treasure Island
(Cassell & Co., 1883; Bantam, 1981; Signet, 2008)

I read a lot of pirate books. I mean really, I probably take it to the extreme. Fact and fiction, I devour them all. So imagine my surprise when it suddenly occured to me I'd never read the pirate classic, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island!

Shame on me! This had to be rectified without delay.

So I picked up a copy and shoved four stacks of must-read books out of the way so I could settle right in with Jim, Long John and all the colorful characters who inhabit this amazing tale. Frankly, I'm not sure when I last read a book so fast.

This short novel, often relegated to the young-adult shelves in libraries and dismissed by adults as a "boy's adventure yarn," is really quite extraordinary. The action is fast but not overwhelming, the story is inventive and the characters are a treat.

Foremost among them is, of course, the despicable Long John Silver, a villain you absolutely love to loathe. This one-legged, parrot-toting pirate is one of the archetypes of the genre, and Silver's descriptions here have formed the public's general impression of pirates more than any historical sea rogue (with the possible exception of Blackbeard) ever has.

But he's just the tip of the iceberg. From Jim Hawkins, the tavern boy thrust into a daring sea adventure, and the naive but formidable Squire Trelawney to Billy Bones and the vile Pew, this book is packed with characters that excite the imagination. The language, although appropriate to its period and sometimes cumbersome for modern readers, flowed easily to my eyes. The search for treasure itself proved secondary to the voyage it takes to get there, and I loved it every league of the way.

Stevenson, who would go on to write such classics as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae, wrote much of this book to entertain his stepson, writing an average of a chapter a day. One can tell throughout that the sickly author was having a ball telling the tale, and it's equally fun to read.

Of course, Stevenson's imagination would inspire a great many pirate "traditions" that have little or no basis in historical fact, from walking the plank to treasure maps on which a bold red "X" marks the spot. That's a mark of good writing.

review by
Tom Knapp

13 September 2008

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