treasure-islandThe Quintessential Pirate Tale

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

A buccaneering classic with lively characters such as the dour Billy Bones, the rakish Blind Pew, and the backstabbing pirate king turned cook, Long John Silver, Treasure Island follows my pre and post vacation sea mood while continuing my monthly tradition of adding a classic into the growing reading list. From the start, it’s obvious that Treasure Island is one of those unique novels which, although ostensibly a children’s tale, holds an equal, if not greater appeal for an adult audience.

A coming of age story told through the perspective of teenage Jim Hawkins, it all begins when an ex-pirate, now intensely afraid of a hostile visit from the fellow thieves he has wronged, appears at the Admiral Benbow Inn and attaches himself to the keeper’s son, Jim. The terrifying novelty of the situation soon wears on Jim, and the sequestered inn, in thrall of its moody inmate, is polluted with an atmosphere of corruption and fear. When Billy Bones imparts a sudden secret, Jim finds himself charged with a moral dilemma and armed with information which could lead to his instant death or the greatest high seas adventure. Only now, Jim and his mother are alone, without advice and without protection, yet both have spirit and a keen desire to retrieve all that was stolen from the inn. Positioned between retribution and life itself, Jim confides in the esteemed Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney and the duo plans a scheme to not only thwart the revenge of Billy Bones’ nemeses, but to attain riches beyond their dreams.

Bound for a secret location and ready to ride the Hispaniola out of port and into uncertainty, Jim is to become a man and find himself embroiled in a pirate’s feud decades in the making. Along for the ride, the Squire has chosen a crew of amenable hands, all lead by the elusive cook named Long John Silver who was an ex-navigator before tragically losing his leg. In thrall of the kindly cook, the amenable atmosphere on board hardly purports the mutiny that is to follow. Only Jim, ever in places he should not be, is the key to saving the remaining loyal crew, the Doctor, and the Squire. But will he be able to match wits with the master of all pirates? Even if he can – will this deserted island and an enigmatic clue from Billy Bones really lead to the grand revelation of gold that everyone expects? How many will die along the way and how far will the ruthless pirates go to secure both their booty and their necks?

Treasure Island with its swashbuckling frankness and gritty adventure is actually the progenitor of most of our modern perceptions of pirates, treasure, and abandoned islands. For instance, Stevenson’s Long John Silver, supplied with one wooden leg and a sarcastic parrot is the icon from which all future fictional pirates were cast. Pirate maps marked with X, the infamous Black Spot, “shiver me timbers,” and the pirate song “14 Sailors on Dead Man’s Chest” were all creations from the vivid world of Treasure Island. This all just goes to show how influential and beloved the book has been – 130 years after its publication it’s still defining culture and traditional adventure . . . me hearties.

Jumping from swift sequence to swift sequence, the narrative still manages to capture both the drag and the speed of time, which puts readers in the characters’ shoes and lets us walk the plank ourselves. For a heart-pounding action story, there is still plenty of description and if the fetid island doesn’t come alive for you, dear reader, then you are completely hopeless.

The story is at times both fun and terrifying, with inimical pirate characters who captivate audiences with their cleverness while simultaneously repelling with their evil schemes and gruesome deeds.  Reminiscent of Jack London’s Sea Wolf with Wolf Larson¸ Long John Silver has the odd charisma of all intelligent villains. It’s an instant love hate relationship that effectively spell-binds adult audiences with the intense grey area of morality explored.

In the end, it’s simply a good story with nautical flare and plenty of edge-of-the-seat capers and tension filled near catastrophes. The kid in you will love the story for its unabashed sense of adventure and the adult will be enraptured by the lure of the characters, specifically the villains. Sure to revive your love of literature and pump a little questing into the doldrums of daily life, it’s no surprise that Treasure Island remains such an icon, and a favorite, a century after its successful debut.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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