Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson

Source of book: We own this, but listened to an audiobook version on our vacation.

It is difficult to think of a book that better fits the description of a children’s “classic” than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The characters - or at least their types - are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that we don’t even realize where they came from. Who doesn’t envision the pirate with one leg missing, or climbing the rigging of a ship with a knife between the teeth, or the castaway eager to return to civilization? Buried pirate treasure undoubtedly predated Stevenson as an idea, but now it would be unimaginable without the long-hidden map, with the location of the treasure marked with a red X and a cryptic description of the location. Even the parrot on the shoulder comes from this story.

I selected this book for our trip initially as a book to read to the kids, but they requested we bring it on our trip, rather than wait until we finished our current book.

I was surprised that, out of all my kids, it was my older son who was uninterested in Treasure Island. It’s not because he dislikes books - he has his nose in them continually. It isn’t that he dislikes adventures either - he has enjoyed the other adventures we have read, and he reads them regularly himself. About all I can think of is that the opening goes kind of slow, and he was too busy reading his Hardy Boys books to pay attention to something else. Who knows? Regardless, he at least listened to enough to go around the house singing “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” to a tune of his own invention.

The rest enjoyed it very much indeed, and were eager to get to the end and find out how it all resolved.

Treasure Island is one of those books that contains nearly no female characters. Young Jim Hawkins’ mother appears briefly, but that is it. Stevenson himself consciously wrote it as an all male story, intending it to be directed solely at boys. This hasn’t stopped girls from enjoying it by any stretch. My wife devoured Stevenson and Jules Verne as a child, and my own girls took to it very quickly.

(Side note: We also listened to about an hour of Zane Gray’s Riders of the Purple Sage on the way back, and it wasn’t popular. I found it gratingly cheesy, while the kids found it too slow. Too much Mormon politics, presumably. My eldest daughter, age 11 going on 25, complained that for a western, it didn’t have nearly enough violence. Note to future suitors of my daughters: I don’t think a father with a shotgun is your biggest worry.)

One thing that I remembered about the book from the times I read it was that it was morally ambiguous. For a kid’s book - particularly in the Victorian Era - this must have been shocking. Long John Silver is a consummate politician, playing both sides while looking out solely for himself. He is capable of kindness, but not loyalty. He is neither as bad nor as good as he could be. In short, he is the most compelling character in the story. He is difficult to like, but doesn’t inspire loathing either.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that this book is immoral by any stretch. It is merely more complex, and allows a certain level of shades of gray, which I believe is a good thing, even - particularly perhaps - for children, who tend to think in terms of good and bad people.

The other gray area, which is interesting, is that Jim’s adventures occur not just because of circumstance, but because of his own not-quite-good choices. Jim disobeys the captain and leaves the stockade, much to the irritation of the others, but he manages to preserve the ship and help tip the tide of the conflict. This is in contrast to many a story, where circumstances force the young protagonist to make decisions on his own. Jim goes from boy to a man in the typical coming-of-age sense, but he gets his opportunities because he makes them. The story has more in common with Peter and the Wolf than with The Island of the Blue Dolphins

I find it fascinating that Jim’s decisions are neither particularly great nor terrible. They are impulsive, and aren’t necessarily well thought through, but they also show some strategy and canniness. They are believable. They also do not end neatly or disastrously. They work out, but barely. This is, of course, a great recipe for an adventure, because it isn’t predictable.

I have always enjoyed reading Stevenson, including the sadly underrated and unread short stories, and highly recommend him to anyone who loves adventure, young or old, boy or girl. Many of his works show more depth of thought, but Treasure Island remains one of the best adventure stories of all time. 

The original pirate treasure map, drawn by Stevenson for the first edition.

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