Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Book Review: Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

A coming-of-age adventure, Treasure Island is a full-blooded tale of pirates, mutiny, siege, greed and intrigue in pursuit of buried treasure. Robert Louis Stevenson recounts a story of rough and desperate men risking all to gain wealth, with a young boy forced to rapidly attain manhood to survive the cut-throat treasure hunt.

Young Jack Hawkins helps his mother and ailing father to run the small Admiral Benbow inn along the waterfront in the English countryside. Billy Bones, a hard drinking former pirate, arrives for a prolonged stay, and he is harbouring a precious secret: the map of a secluded island, showing the location of treasure buried by the infamous pirate Captain Flint. Bones' former pirate colleagues, now his mortal enemies, eventually catch up with him, and he succumbs to alcoholism, leaving Jack in possession of the map.

With his father now dead, Jack teams up with the good Doctor Livesey and the rich landowner Squire Trelawney, and out of the port city of Bristol they organize an expedition on board the ship Hispaniola to find and retrieve the treasure. But the ship's cook, the one-legged Long John Silver, is also one of Flint's former colleagues, and he has plans to lead the crew in a mutiny and to secure the treasure for his own. With the violence threatening to erupt into the open, Jack has to take enormous risks to save his life and prevent the treasure from falling into evil hands.

Treasure Island is not necessarily an easy read. The combination of 19th century English, excessive marine terminology, and intensive pirate-speak burdens the book, rendering many passages impenetrable except to active modern day pirates with literary knowledge of olde English.

Stevenson also does not pull back on descriptive prose, expending many paragraphs in pursuit of the detailed geography of the treasure island or the minute movements of the good ship Hispaniola. Patience is required to wade through sentences that struggle mightily to maintain movement, but often appear to serve padding rather than plot.

The book derives its strength from the two central characters, Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. Narrator Jim Hawkins is transitioning from boy to man, and repeatedly takes risks and independent actions without knowing how his initiatives will unfold. That he often ends up doing the right thing is startling even to himself, and Hawkins represents a boy discovering the path to adulthood through the power of instinct combined with bravery.

Silver is a most intriguing character, smooth, manipulative, and deadly, despite hopping around on one leg. Able to charm people like the Squire Trelawney just as easily as he can control and intimidate a band of ruthless pirates, Silver meets his unlikely match in Hawkins, probably because Hawkins demonstrates the ingenuity that Silver himself possessed as a boy. While Silver's destiny sank into piracy, Hawkins latent skills are being shaped by his upbringing towards more legitimate pursuits, and Silver sees in Hawkins a now-abandoned alternative path for his own life. The relationship between the two holds the book together, as their mutual actions and reactions prompt each successive round of combat, deceit and negotiations in pursuit of treasure.

Treasure Island is filled with drunkenness, violence, murder, death threats, and rotting corpses. For a story presumably intended for a youthful audience, Stevenson reflects a time when becoming a man meant dealing with a less coddled reality. The era may be different, but the swashbuckling story of a boy taking charge of his destiny and growing up in a hurry retains its timeless appeal.

213 pages, including many small illustrations by Scott McKowen.
Published in hardcover by Sterling Publishing.

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