Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson
Warning: I am going to insult Robert Louis Stevenson right now. If you went online today intending to yell at some chick for failing to appreciate Treasure Island, I am that chick; you have come to the right site. @me in the comments.
I love The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I love it so much. Everyone should read it at least three times. See my review of that story here for more on why I respect and adore it. I think that if Stevenson hadn’t written that one little story he would have been entirely forgotten. Nothing else he wrote is good.
I just don’t understand what is supposed to be great about Treasure Island or Kidnapped. I found both stories so under-stimulating that I am reviewing them together, because I cannot possibly scrounge up two posts worth of thoughts about these books. There just isn’t much to them. I imagine that some people appreciate the scary pirates in Treasure Island and the romantic highland setting of Kidnapped, but these books are Tom Sawyers they are not Huckleberry Finns. Well, they aren’t even Tom Sawyers, because Tom Sawyer is much funnier. Twain’s writing style is much quirkier and more engaging than Stevenson’s. What I mean by the metaphor is that like Tom Sawyer, Stevenson’s tales of childhood adventure are just that and nothing more. They do not have the emotional or thematic weight of Huck Finn.
Treasure Island concerns a young boy who comes into possession of a treasure map and falls in with a sordid set of pirates in his quest to recover the booty. This novel was wildly popular and influential. Half our silly ideas about pirates come from this book. Treasure maps marked with an X. One-legged pirates. Foul-mouthed parrots. Crazy marooned sailors. All that is very nice and imaginative. I admit the characterization is great. Long John Silver is a very creepy conman. Poor marooned Ben Gunn is simultaneously unpredictable, sympathetic and eerie. However, our protagonist, young Jim Hawkins is a thinly sketched everykid who could be swapped out for the main character of Kidnapped with no discernible difference. They’re just a couple of kids with no character traits in strange circumstances. I guess they’re both resilient and determined, but that describes every kid in every adventure story. I forgot their names immediately after setting down their respective volumes.
David Balfour is the kid in Kidnapped, which is about getting shanghaied. Were you hoping for a plot less plausible than a kid getting his hands on an actual treasure map? Here you go: David Balfour has recently been orphaned. For some reason, his father died without once mentioning that David is the heir to an estate that is currently occupied by an evil uncle. Everybody has one of those: a secret, evil, rich uncle who lives in a rundown castle on the border of the Scottish Highlands. It’s so plausible that you should call your father right now, if you can, and ask him if he has a rich brother he has never once mentioned. Anyway, it turns out that David is the real heir. His uncle tries to kill him, but David is too clever. So, Evil Uncle enlists the help of a corrupt captain to shanghai David and sell him into indentured servitude in the Carolinas. David manages to avoid this fate through a series of absurd events that leaves him crossing the Highlands with an outlaw named Alan Breck. Breck has a few character traits, thank goodness. Stevenson drew inspiration for the plot and for Breck from real people and one real event, the Appin murder. Although the murder is more of an unnecessary tangent from than a meaningful backdrop for the plot. Briefly, England had just squashed the Jacobite Uprising and were working on further squashing the spirit and culture of the Scotts. Some important fella on the British side was murdered, so the local justice system gathered a biased jury and convicted the closest laird of the murder even though there was no evidence against him and everyone knew he didn’t do it. Think of all a skilled author could do with such an example of injustice in such a romantic time and location. Stevenson has his characters visit the laird who has not been arrested yet, but fears he might be. Then they leave. He never even mentions him again. I only know that he was later falsely convicted and executed because I looked it up.
What a waste.
I could forgive every literary sin I have mentioned if Treasure Island and Kidnapped excelled in one critical element. The most important element for any adventure tale. Pacing. These stories are both approximately 200 pages long, which is so short for a novel from this period. Yet, they both manage to drag on. While reading Kidnapped I found myself bored and feeling no sense of emotional connection to the characters or events. I thought “please just get to part where our two buddies have a fight, one of them almost dies and then they reconcile.” After two more chapters of nothing significant, we got to that exact point. Because every tale of two dudes adventuring together contains that element. David’s near death and Alan’s concern for him was the only moment that elicited an emotional reaction, but it was a weak response, because I’ve experienced it before while watching any number of predictable children’s movies.
Come for me in the comments, RLS fans. I am ready to hear how ignorant and obtuse I am. Make sure to criticize my punctuation while you’re down there.
Final thoughts: George Eliot published an essay called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in which she opines the publication of formulaic, unrealistic novels written by women. (Yeah, George Eliot kind of sucked. More on that when I have fully processed how disappointed I am in her.) She was not alone in this sentiment. I think Treasure Island and Kidnapped belong in a category of Silly Novels by Male Novelists. There’s just not much to them. They are not great novels. If Stevenson hadn’t written Jekyll and Hyde, I don’t think these stories would be read today. They are worth pilfering for inspiration for Pirates of the Caribbean, but that’s it. No other value.