By Robert Louis Stevenson
Waking Lion Press, $16.95, 226 pages
Whether it’s hordes of pint-sized pirates giggling by on Halloween or the Jolly Roger flying from tidy sailboats in Nantucket harbor, it seems that pirates are everywhere these days. Hollywood’s recent success with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies is one big reason. But the archetypal fortune hunter of the high seas, patch over his eye, hoops in his ears, face swarthy, scarred and with great black beard; gold on his teeth, rum on his breath, and lust in his eyes for money and blood, is an image that has long captured our imagination. And one work by Robert Louis Stevenson started it all.
“Treasure Island” was first published in 1883, but it is set at least a century earlier. Neat, episodic chapters move the action along, and there’s plenty of it packed into the short narrative. It is very much within the reach of a young reader, and it gets better when read aloud and with vigor (just be ready to sing Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!).
Indeed, it seems most people have read “Treasure Island” at some point, and on returning to it, eyes will fall on “the black spot,” “shiver my timbers,” and “pieces of eight” with warm familiarity. The story concerns the discovery of a mysterious map in a dead buccaneer’s sea chest and the subsequent expedition to find the treasure that lies buried on the remote, uncharted island. You knew that. But don’t write off “Treasure Island” as shop-worn and hackneyed: It remains a thrilling read. And there’s literature buried on them shores, and you can lay to that, matey.
Simply put, Stevenson is a prose master. With absolute command of detail and description and the canny ability to spin a good yarn, Stevenson cooks up something delicious and sustaining, but not too heavy. The key ingredient: character.
The narrator, young Jim Hawkins, must help his mother to keep the family inn after the death of his father, and in the shadow of a crusty old buccaneer, Billy Bones, who has taken up residence there, a fugitive. The antics of this salty dog propel the first part of the story to the inevitable arrival of real trouble at the Admiral Benbow Inn. You guessed it: pirates.
From the start, it is clear that Jim Hawkins is a young man whose resourcefulness and bravery are surpassed only by his penchant for serendipity at key moments in the story, and whose unassailable honesty validates his telling of it. Jim is pure of heart, though discerning, and these qualities make him a model character, especially for younger readers who will recognize that at every turn it is through Jim’s actions alone that the treasure hunters manage to avoid complete disaster.
Then there is the duo of Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney, Jim’s benefactors, who possess the means to set the voyage in motion. The doctor is particularly finely drawn, a no-nonsense man of science, and he and the squire, a more voluble sort, represent the noble and sea-worthy British gentry, who come to hold sway over one half of Jim’s conscience.
These upright Englishmen stand in sharp contrast with the colorful cast of pirates. One such scoundrel, Black Dog by name, is marked “not sailorly, but he had a smack of the sea about him too,” an important distinction. Sailors are sailors, honest men. Pirates are pirates, plunderers. It makes for satisfying good guys-bad guys fare once the line is drawn in the sand.
Which brings us to the most celebrated pirate of them all: Long John Silver. In the character of Silver, Stevenson weds bad and good. It’s a tempestuous union, and the result is a presence that dominates the pages of “Treasure Island” and leaves such a profound impression upon Jim as to become the other half of the boy’s divided conscience.
Like Dr. Jekyll, he of another of Stevenson’s tales, Long John Silver is two-faced, as money-hungry and murderous as any pirate, but with something approaching a sense of honor. Most important, Silver comes to have a bond with Jim that is cemented when he talks his pirate brood down from the brink of killing the boy:
“I’m cap’n here because I’m the best man by a long sea-mile. You won’t fight as gentlemen o’ fortune should; then, by thunder, you’ll obey … I like that boy, now; I never seen a better boy than that. He’s more a man than any pair of rats of you … Let me see him that’ll lay a hand on him — that’s what I say, and you may lay to it.”
So Silver, the one-legged sea-cook, becomes an unlikely father-figure to Jim Hawkins, even as he remains, as ever, a “gentleman o’ fortune.” His is a personality in which sycophantic charm mixes with raw brutality, and, with his penchant for rousing oratory, Long John Silver’s voice will long echo in the mind of the reader.
The last important character in “Treasure Island” is the island itself. On the shores of this god-forsaken piece of Caribbean rock the action unfolds, honorable English speculators versus riled, rummy pirates.
The idea for “Treasure Island” is said to have sprung from a fanciful map that Stevenson drew for a child, and the precision with which the writer describes the wild topography of the island underscores the importance he placed on the look and feel of one’s surroundings. Battle scenes are recounted with the zeal of a military strategist. Jim’s own knowledge of the island, gleaned from exhaustive study of the map, helps him throughout, even as he is haunted by the ghosts of the men who gave up their lives on those fateful shores for the promise of silver and pieces of eight.
There is more to be found on Treasure Island than treasure, of course, and in the end, the treasure is almost an afterthought. What the reader will find is something just as good, and far more enduring.
Noah Deutsch is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.