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Treasure Island: a troubling adventure

treasure-islandHalf a century has passed since I first read Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson yet much of it is still fresh in my mind. I remember the menacing figure of Long John Silver and the quick witted child Jim who is initially mesmerised by Silver but proves his nemesis. I remember also some of the dramatic scenes like the one where Jim hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates plotting to kill their way to the treasure.

Treasure Island was a landmark in the history of children’s literature, one of the first directed specifically at boy readers. It was seen initially as a great adventure story which portrayed the qualities expected of men who formed the British Empire, governing and controlling  a waste swathe of the world. So Jim, our hero, is imbued with qualities like courage, the ability to take control (at one point he grabs the ship and steers it to safety) and integrity in the sense he knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s a coming of age novel in which Jim learns how to use those skills on the side of the establishment and against those who would destabilise it (in other words the criminal undercurrent).

And yet there are some troubling elements in the novel that undercut that presentation of the novel.

The first is troubling element is Jim’s relationship with Silver.For a large part of the novel Jim seems to admire this former seaman. When he sees him for the first time in the Bristol quayside pub he runs, he is impressed with Silver’s energy and his ability to laugh and joke with the patrons. Knowing of Silver’s past association with Black Dog and his experience with the violent buccaneers who lay siege to his mother’s in, he is surprised to find Silver “a clean and pleasant landlord” who “he would have gone bail for.” Even when he discovers Silver’s true nature he admires the man’s ability to control the pirates, establish himself as leader and the energy with which he embarks on the climb to find the treasure. But Jim is un unreliable narrator – first because he is telling the story as an adult and hence what he recalls. Additionally he often tries to justify actions which at the time feel disloyal to the men on the side of the goodies – particularly the Squire and the Doctor. She he absconds from the stockade where they are trying to fend off the pirates he makes the excuse that he is “only a boy…”

A second element that undercuts the story is the way that the people who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority are shown to be just as bad as the recognisably evil pirates. The pirates are motivated by greed – they squabble and are ready to commit murder to get their hands on the buried treasure. But are the two figures who plan the adventure and fund it, any better? Squire Trelawney  proves to be someone who can’t keep his mouth shut about the voyage and spills the beans before they have even equipped their vessel. The local doctor Dr. Livesey is wise and practical and he does at least show integrity by agreeing to treat the pirates with just as much care as his own wounded men. But both men have just as much a lust for treasure as much as the pirates (even and both end up killing people. The Squire proves to be quite a crack shot, able to ‘pick off’ a distant pirate almost casually.

By the time they leave the island they show no remorse in leaving behind the remaining pirates to die because its less troubling than taking them home to face the hangman. They share out the treasure, in a fair manner according to Jim yet Ben Gunn who was their saviour doesn’t seem to have been treated in a way that recognised how instrumental he was in saving their lives and finding them the treasure. Only the boy Jim seems to recognise the true cost of the voyage as one of “blood and sorrow…. shame and lies and cruelty..” Not quite the behaviour you’d expect from fine upstanding members of the Colonial controlling establishment?

This undercurrent of something not feeling quite comfortable about the book’s messaging is the reason I enjoyed reading it. The adventure story was good – plenty of dramatic moments and nasty villains. But I enjoyed reading between the lines and trying to work out whether Stephenson is endorsing conservatism or undermining it.

What his motives were we will never know but in Silver he gave us a character tat has endured through the ages with constant reinvention. Without Silver we may never have had Captain Hook in Peter Pan or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Disney Theme Park. Not bad for a novel more than 100 years old..

Footnotes

The Book: Treasure Island by R.L Stevenson was published in 1883. Legend has it that it was inspired by a map Stevenson drew himself and that he drew on the histories of real pirates like Blackbeard.

My edition: Published by Oxford World Classics which has a good glossary (very useful for those nautical terms and a helpful introduction by Peter Hunt one of the leading academics in the field of children’s literature).

Why I read this: its one of the set texts on my children’s literature course.

 

 

 

Weekend Bookends # 2

Farewell to Nobel giants

This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series.  I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.

Doris LessingSt Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93.  One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.

The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood. 

Gabriel Garcia MarquezOn Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez.  Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.

Should celebs write children’s fiction?

Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting.  Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore. 

Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:

…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.

Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers.  I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right  voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children.  Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children.  Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.

The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?

If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article

Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one. TheGoldfinchpulitzer.org/awards/2014

 

 

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