Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adventure Week #2: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Johnny Depp owes Robert Louis Stevenson big time. Were it not for Stevenson, Depp’s resurgence into the popular eye might not have happened. Well, it might have happened but it would not have been because of his portrayal of pirate Captain Jack Sparrow. Come to think of it, Walt Disney himself might not have even had the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. So, add Disney to the list of people who owe Stevenson tribute.

Treasure Island is one hell of a novel. Jim Hawkins is the narrator (except for three chapters) and it’s through his young eyes we see the story. His mother owes the Admiral Benbow Inn and an old, craggy sailor, Billy Bones, takes up lodging. Billy tells Jim to look out for a man with one leg. That’s a man who’s after the contents of the chest Billy keeps in his room. One thing leads to another and, after Billy suffers a stroke, Jim takes possession of a map hidden in the chest. And not a moment too soon: some of Billy’s old scalawags come looking for the map and Jim and his mom barely escape. They turn to Squire Trelawney (wonder if J. K. Rowling is a fan of Treasure Island?) who, along with Dr. Lovesey, realize the map leads to buried pirate treasure. They resolve to form an expedition and go hunt for the gold.

Yeah. I am so there. And so is Jim, who comes along for the adventure. Trelawney hires a man named Long John Silver, an old sea cook, and a bunch of Silver’s friends to crew the ship. Jim’s immediately suspicious since Silver has only one leg. (Cue scary music.) But, onward they sail, all together on the Hispaniola, to the Caribbean. There is some shipboard mischief and suspicion ending with Jim overhearing Silver talk to his lads. You see, they are the former crew of the man, Captain Flint, who drew the map. This expedition is merely their way of returning to Treasure Island and discovering what is rightfully theirs. Or so they think.

Once the crew make landfall, the real excitement begins. Mutiny, battles, and affairs of honor ensue. For awhile, you forget that Jim is a mere teenager for all the derring do he accomplishes. For the most part, even though I had never read the book, I kind of knew the general story line for a century of other pirate books and films. The only outstanding question for me was the fate of Long John Silver himself. I was quite satisfied.

If 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made me yawn and yearn for the Disney movie just to liven things up, Treason Island made me long for another hundred pages. Or a sequel. Or a series. Man! This book was great. Hard to believe that Stevenson’s novel (1883) was published only thirteen years after Verne’s seminal novel. They read and feel like they were written decades apart.

I listened to the audiobook read by Alfred Molina and he hit it out of the ballpark. He nailed all the piratey accents so well that I would find myself talking “pirate” to my family and friends. As big a fan of audiobooks as I am, listening to Treasure Island is something I highly recommend. It was one of the best audio productions I've listened to and, frankly, will continue to listen to this recording in the years to come.

When I finally watched “Casablanca” in my twentieth year of life, I was struck by how many famous lines and scenes were in that movie. Ditto for Treasure Island. I never knew that Stevenson’s novel was the mother lode—nay, the source—of so many things we associate with pirate lore: the black dot, treasure maps, parlay, one-legged seamen, and the black flag, to name but a few. And the song! This is where it comes from. How cool is that?
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
Like I wrote before, the thrilling excitement that was the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie would not have existed were it not for Treasure Island.

I always keep a list of the books I read and rank them at year’s end. Since I read a lot of older books, I allow myself the luxury of naming my favorite book of the year and my favorite classic book of the year. To date, Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity ranks as my favorite new book of the year. By far, Treasure Island tops the classic book list. The only one that comes close is the mystery book I’ll be reviewing on Friday (guessed what it is yet?).

I joke about these four adventure books and me reading them at age forty rather than when I was a kid. Here’s the thing: when I listened to Treasure Island, I felt like a kid with all that childlike wonder and enthusiasm. It’s a thrilling book and one you can enjoy at any age.


Charles Gramlich said...

There is a sequel to treasure island, but not by Stevenson. I have a copy of it but haven't read it yet. Can't remember the title and author at the moment.

Treasure Island had a big effect on me as a kid, as did Swiss Family Robinson

Perplexio said...

Stevenson is a classic author that I want to read more of. And from that era I'd also like to read more Rudyard Kipling as I've heard his books are also quite enjoyable.

For "classics" in recent years I've read more Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and Salinger-- all 20th century stuff (with the exception of Dreiser's Sister Carrie-- written in 1899 but not published until 1903).

But your posts have given me a hankering for some classic adventure novels. I might also add Jack London to the list. I read The Call of the Wild in 6th grade and thoroughly enjoyed it and have always wanted to read White Fang as well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

These were the books I never read as a kid. I was rooted in books about everyday life. I don't know why. Maybe it's the equivalent of girls playing house and boys playing cowboys. A domesticity that begins at birth for some girls. A good blog topic--thanks.

Phy said...

Treasure Island is what prompted me to write the character of The Friar of Briar Island for my serial novel. He's smart, he's charismatic, he's utterly charming, and his morality is completely arbitrary. RLS rocked.

For classic adventure tales, Kipling's two Jungle Book volumes are amazing, but my personal favorites might just be Dumas' musketeers tales.

Perplexio said...

Phy - I'd forgotten about Dumas' books. Although I think I'd prefer The Count of Monte Cristo over The Three Musketeers or The Man In the Iron Mask.

Scott Parker said...

Charles - I wonder if the sequel is any good. You read it?

Perplexio - I may have to crack open London's works. I've only read the short stories.

Patti - Yeah, I can see your point. King Solomon's Mines barely has any female characters. TI either, except the mom. There's quite a bit of male chauvinism in these stories and I guess they didn't think women were capable of fighting bad guys. They never saw Aliens or Terminator 2.

Phy - Kipling's on the list, too. I've read a story here and there but not much else. And I've read none of Dumas works although I enjoyed the wonderful French version of the Count of Monte Cristo with Gerard Depardeau.

Clare2e said...

I'm enjoying this series of yours! As a child, I was big on pirate and whaling tales, tales of explorers and hidden lands, all that jazz. I love TI, and last reread it while flying to Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, as I'm theme-y that way.

Most people have no idea how thoroughly, RLS invented the flavor of piracy that lives in our imaginations. I've read real scholarship on the piracy of the time, and while it contains fascinating characters and stories, none more so than that of his crafty Sea Cook.

My husband's been reading all the Dumas in the public domain, but my latest real oldie was Ivanhoe, another pillar of modern storytelling.

James Reasoner said...

PORTO BELLO GOLD by pulp author Arthur D. Howden-Smith is a prequel to TREASURE ISLAND and was published in 1924. I haven't read it, but I've read other things by Howden-Smith that were good.

Scott Parker said...

Clare2e - Thank you. And I'm glad I'm not alone with themed reading. This summer's reading started off with Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity and it was every bit the summer blockbuster that Star Trek or Harry Potter was. The same can be said about Jeff Abbott's Trust Me. I'm saving Jimmy Buffett's Where is Joe Merchant? for my next trip to the Caribbean. Ditto for westerns: when I travel west, I want to read a western. I really need to read some Dumas.

James - Thanks for the tip. I'm passing it along to my friend who loves TI, knows about this book, but forgot the title. I'm off to find it myself.