Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson transferred me to a world of pirates and sea-life, but best of all the boy protagonist drove the action. Because he was in the right place at the right time and made great choices, he was able to “save the day.” I think it’s perfect for a child to read, and it reminds me that there is great classic literature for children: this is what I can’t wait to introduce to my son.
I found Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped less engaging and loveable, but still an interesting story of success. A boy is kidnapped by his uncle and sent toward the Americas. Due to his cleverness, he is shipwrecked in Scotland, but things go wrong and he becomes a political outcast as he flees south with a political refugee. While I struggled as I read it, I still enjoyed it.
Treasure Island’s charm lay in the power of the child. While Jim Hawkins was probably an older boy (age 16 or 17), I still felt he was a “boy” as I read and I think older kids would love relating to his adventures. From the beginning, Jim is the one discovering things and When a pirate dies in his family hotel, Jim finds a map with a treasure marked on it. With some help from a wealthy neighbor, they plan their trip to the island. There are a number of coincidences, of course, but one can’t help fall in love with Long John Silver, the one-legged cook who we are not surprised to find is actually a pirate. (I was so pleased to see how good he really was!)
I picked up Treasure Island as a part of my history of children’s literature project. Treasure Island is a part of the Robinson Crusoe legacy, and it is clear how it is. As Seth Lerer points out in his book Children’s Literature, when Jim Hawkins comes across Ben Gunn on the island,
“It is as if the boy had come upon Crusoe himself, marooned on his island and attired in the tatters of his former life.” (page 142).
Since I loved Robinson Crusoe, I also loved finding these parallels. While Jim Hawkins didn’t go through a religious transformation as Crusoe did, he did go through his own rites of passage to become an adult: surely, all his actions proved him worthy of being called a “man.”
While Stevenson’s other children’s novel does not hearken as clearly back to the Crusoe legacy (and wasn’t mentioned in the Children’s Literature book, I don’t think), it still captures some of the magic of the sea-faring life that must have been every young child’s dream. Of course, David’s sea experiences are horrible, and the testament to the abuse may have cured children of the dream of going to see. Did Crusoe’s ship-wreck likewise make sea-life less attractive?
For me, Kidnapped lacked some of the “child power” that I enjoyed in the first novel. While David Balfour was obviously a smart boy, he relied on others, such as Alan Breck, for much of the novel. If Alan had not appeared on his ship, David would not have been able to wreck the ship. Without Alan’s leadership, money, friendship, and guidance, David would not have made it back to England. I enjoyed the premise of the story, but since I’m so unfamiliar with English and Scottish history, I found myself confused during the political discussions. (My ignorance prompted my current Project Book.) I did not understand the “refugee” status the two had, and so I felt I missed a major element of the novel.
In the end, of the two, I absolutely loved Treasure Island. I bought a lovely copy for my 8-year-old nephew for Christmas, and I can’t wait to get a lovely copy for my own son too. Maybe 8 years old is a bit young, but I’m all for promoting the classics no matter what age. (Hence the fact that I read my one-year-old Robinson Crusoe last year…)
Have you read either of these books as a child? How old were you?
What did you like most about them?
P.S. Don’t you love the cover for Treasure Island above? It reminds me of my time visiting the Twelve Apostles in Australia!