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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) 258 p.

I read Kidnapped in 2010 and quite liked it, so I figured I’d give Treasure Island a go. Now I’m reflecting on whether perhaps Kidnapped was a book I enjoyed because it provided me with entertainment at a time when I didn’t have much else to do.

Treasure Island is the classic pirate story, a book that spawned thousands of imitators and almost single-handedly created a genre. Young Jim Hawkins, the poor son of innkeepers, is swept up into excitement and adventure after one of his lodgers entrusts him with a treasure map before dying. Jim promptly takes the map to Dr. Livesey, local magistrate and gentleman, and together they assemble an expedition to recover the treasure from the titular Caribbean Island. All doesn’t go to plan, of course, with the crew turning out to be half pirates, and upon arrival on Treasure Island all manner of mutinous hijinks break out in the scramble to seize the treasure.

Treasure Island is a pirate story with 19th century mores, where the good guys are upstanding English gentlemen and the pirates are villainous scoundrels – unlike modern incarnations, where Johnny Depp is cast as a dashing and romantic figure of fun, the script neatly sidestepping the fact that pirates are bad people who do bad things. (I dearly love Mister Gibbs, but I expect he’s raped his fair share.) Treasure Island contains a good amount of betrayal, cold-blooded murder and terrible fates, and to his credit, Stevenson does not shy away from the fact that this is the sort of thing that can utterly ruin a boy’s fantasised adventure:

Although the sun shone bright and hot, and the shore birds were fishing and crying all around us, and you would have thought anyone would be glad to get to land after so long at sea, my heart sank, as the saying is, into my boots, and from that first look onward I hated the very thought of Treasure Island.

And although the book has what you’d technically call a happy ending, it finishes on a dark note, with Jim still haunted by what happened on the island.

These good points aside, I can’t recommend Treasure Island, largely because I had trouble maintaining an interest in it. It starts out and finishes well enough, yet drags in the centre, as Jim’s crew hold out a stockade against the pirates. There’s far too much technical detail, a wholly unnecessary switch to Dr. Livesey as narrator, and it’s all just poorly paced. As the book goes on, far too much time is spent debating the loyalties and power struggles of the various crews, and the men within the crews, with overly-wrought dialogue. I also felt that Stevenson was treating the plot like a chess game, moving pieces here and there, and having certain characters do things which made no sense simply because it was necessary for the plot (Jim sneaking off and recovering the ship against all odds is the prime offender here.) Kidnapped, in comparison, contained a number of unexpected twists and turns which never felt out of place or contrived.

Not a bad book, but not a good one either – certainly a disappointment compared to its reputation, and not as good as Stevenson’s less-famous Kidnapped.

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March 2012