Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I can’t resist describing #36 Treasure Island as a swash-buckling, rip-roaring adventure. First published in 1881, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is available for free on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle.

Jim Hawkins, age about 11, lives with his parents at their inn. A retired, paranoid and drunken sailor turns up and demands lodging. After he dies, Jim finds a treasure map amongst his belongings, and the local squire plans a trip to recover the booty, taking Jim along as cabin boy.

The book is short and easy to read, mostly told from Jim’s perspective. It’s a children’s story – but a 19th century adventure, too, which means that people die a lot and get bits chopped off. I didn’t find it disturbing, but your mileage may vary.

Manly men doing manly things
Treasure Island features an almost entirely male cast – and yet, I don’t mind. It’s an old book, and at the time women didn’t often go to sea (although there were female pirates) also, the women in the book are treated fairly well – they’re minor characters, but competent: both run businesses while their husbands are absent, and seem to expect to keep on doing so indefinitely.

Jim’s mother has a brief speaking part, but isn’t seen again after they set off on their adventure. The other woman is also the only person of colour (that I noticed) in the book – she’s Long John Silver’s wife, and is mentioned only briefly as sharing the running of their tavern and taking it on entirely while he’s away, handling their affairs in Bristol entirely.

I don’t imagine for a moment that Stevenson’s opinions on race would have met modern standards, but it’s interesting that he has managed to portray – in just a couple lines – a competent black woman happily married (I think Silver’s comments suggested the union was happy, although the Squire says that her being a woman of colour is reason enough for Silver to go to sea, which is a strike against Stevenson) and running her own business, something modern TV shows and films seem to struggle with, and period dramas seem to think impossible.

Another oddity, compared to later more ‘progressive’ works, is that characters with disabilities play key roles, and while their disabilities may stop them from doing certain things, they’re not mocked for them or dismissed. Long John Silver, described as having one leg cut off close to the hip, is a very creditable, creepy villain, with his pure self-interest and ability to wriggle out of any situation, and uses his crutch as a weapon and a tool.

Seen it in the movies
I hadn’t read Treasure Island before, but the story is very familiar – we had a video the Storybook Classics version when I was young. I haven’t seen the film for at least a decade, probably 15 years, but I remembered it vividly – although I thought that Silver had an eyepatch (you can probably guess why from his scrunched up face in the picture) and that it was the other leg which was missing.

The film seemed very good at the time – I’m tempted to get a copy and rewatch it, now – and I remembered the vividly as I read the book. It seems to have been a faithful adaption. As I recall it, some of the minor characters were written out, the beginning tightened up, and the rest unrolled more or less as written – high body count and all.

All in all, I enjoyed Treasure Island. While I’ve been critical of many of the books from my childhood I’ve reread, this one made me soppily nostalgic. I won’t say it’s flawless but I do think it’s worth a look.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

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