Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest –
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
Inspired by a fanciful map drawn to amuse his step-son, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, his first novel and his first work for children. With its taut story-line and crisp prose, Treasure Island is a most suspenseful adventure tale. Stevenson was adept at driving a plot, and what better components than a buried treasure and a mutinous crew of pirates outnumbering the virtuous by three to one?
More importantly, Stevenson was a master at creating character, and Treasure Island is really a book about Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. Jim, the narrator, is the young lad who finds the treasure map in the effects of the fierce buccaneer, Billy Bones, thus setting off the train of events. He it is, through a series of rash decisions, who overhears the pirates’ mutinous plans, encounters the marooned Ben Gunn, and secrets the ship for later escape – all necessary to the salvation of his friends. Long John Silver, alternately Jim’s nemesis and protector, is one of the most psychologically nuanced characters in fiction. Ever mercurial, impressively astute, the one-legged pirate is charming and obsequious one moment and heartlessly cruel and treacherous the next. (Fascinated by duality, Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde three years later.) Even when at his most despicable, it is impossible not to admire his intuitive grasp of human nature and the ease with which he manipulates others to his advantage. Against our reasoned judgment, we find him likeable and are relieved when Stevenson allows him to jump ship in a Spanish American port, together with a bag of gold and Cap’n Flint, his parrot, (squawking “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”), thus saving his neck from the gallows.
Stevenson excelled at writing vivid description – witness his handling of the coracle, Ben Gunn’s goatskin teacup of a boat, dancing through the waves. He also had a keen ear for dialogue. Treasure Island is enhanced by a reader who can do justice to the dialects of the various voices, and this is even more true of Kidnapped, his other great adventure novel, in which the Scottish brogue is as key to the created atmosphere as the rich description of the highlands.