Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Book Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Young Jim Hawkins works with his father at the Admiral Benbow Inn, and his life is normal until "the old seadog" Billy Bones comes to stay at the inn. Jim is told to look out for a man with one leg, and soon the one-legged man begins to haunt his dreams, which is a good indication of the troubles to come. The next thing Jim knows, he's off on an adventure with a poorly-chosen crew of sailors, a few decent Englishmen, a map that is supposed to lead to a hidden treasure, and Long John Silver--a quirky and charming ship's cook who wins Jim's admiration, but who is hiding quite a few secrets.
I'm reading this book again as an adult, but what I remember most about reading Treasure Island in my childhood is how uninterested I was in it. I think by the time I read the book at age 11 or so, I had already seen so many adaptations, skits, and knockoffs of Treasure Island that reading the source material was a letdown. Plain old betrayals and treasure discoveries somehow felt anticlimactic. As a kid, I also resented the fact that there were no girls in the story (except for Jim's easily flustered mom). You can't really fault a story about sailors and pirates for not having any prominent female characters, but I still find that very few dudes-only stories manage to hold my attention. To really get into a fictional world, I almost always have to have somebody as my stand-in, some significant female presence affecting the story. But despite my initial apathy, I do think there are some nice points to Treasure Island.
-- Realism. Everyone's very dirty, with ratty hair, black fingernails, jagged scars, etc. This doesn't seem to be a romanticized rendering of pirates.
--Action. Though Treasure Island is descriptive enough, it's definitely not flowery and the author doesn't spend as much time as other writers of the same period on establishing the scenery, which I appreciated.
--Jim. He doesn't seem like an especially vivid character because he's mainly the lens through which we see the fictional world, but he is notably brave and he is very action-oriented for a boy who comes from a quiet country lifestyle.
--Little details. 1. I like how "Long John" is already a nickname, but the man gets a further nickname from his crew--Barbecue, because he's the cook. 2. Long John's parrot is named "Cap'n Flint" after his old ship's captain, which seems kind of irreverent and therefore perfect for a pirate's pet. 3. The fact that Jim thinks it's totally normal to jump into an apple barrel to find an apple to eat. Doesn't really sound like a clean practice, getting your clothes and shoes mixed up with your food. But hey, whatever it takes to get to the food that wards off the scurvy...
--Memorable side characters. Dr. Livesy is pretty tough--he doesn't suffer fools gladly and doesn't think much of loud ruffians. It's also great how obsessed Ben Gunn is with cheese. The abandoned man has been fantasizing about cheese-eating for three years.
To me, Treasure Island isn't really an entertaining read, nor is it high on the list of great literary works, but it's certainly worth looking at. Most of us have experienced a culture laden with references to the book and parodies of it, so it's a nice revelation to actually read the original and find out what parts have been exaggerated or altered in adaptation. Grade: B
--"Sometimes he would call for glasses round and force all the trembling company to listen to his stories or bear a chorus to his singing. Often I have heard the house shaking with "Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum," all the neighbours joining in for dear life, with the fear of death upon them, and each singing louder than the other to avoid remark." (pg 5)
The pirates use some great slang and onomatopoeia in this story...
-"I'm not afraid on 'em. I'll shake out another reef, matey, and daddle 'em again." (pg 15)
-"Budge, you skulk!" cried Pew. (pg 24)
Watchable bonus: Yes, it's the least accurate adaptation of the classic, but Muppet Treasure Island remains my favorite, especially because of the songs. One more time now!