Sunday, March 23, 2008

Book #9 - Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

D'arrr, maties, I just finished reading this manly seafarin' tale, full of pirates, and rum, and booty (the 19th century kind), and talking parrots, and rum, and swashbuckling, and buried treasure, and rum.  And did I mention the rum?  Because here's the thing about pirates, at least as described in this book:  they drink prodigious amounts of rum.  And when they're drunk and out of their heads on rum, then they sing about it (Yo, ho, ho, etc.).

This was a fun book.  Not just because of the adventure tale, but also because it's such a cultural icon.  I was not aware of all the pirate mythology that came from this book...the character Long John Silver (long before he sold out and started a fast food chain, although interestingly he was ship's cook in this story...well, before the mutiny anyway), the parrot who shouts "pieces of eight", maps marked with an X indicating buried treasure, and, of course, the song about 15 men on a dead man's chest.

The story begins in a small town on the English coast, where young Jim Hawkins works at his parents' inn.  An old drunken sailor, Billy Bones, comes to lodge with them.  When not pounding down rum, Billy is looking out to sea with his telescope, afraid of a one-legged seaman.  Well, stuff happens...a pirate comes looking for Billy, and they fight.  Jim's father dies (naturally).  Billy dies of a stroke after a visit by a pirate gang, and Jim finds a treasure map in his sea chest.  He shows the map to the local doctor and squire.  The squire says to the doctor "Let's go find the treasure...I'll have a boat together in a couple of weeks, and Jim can come along as cabin boy".  The doctor agrees.  Jim's mom goes along with this.  Woah...WTF?!?  This is the part of the book where I realized that I'd wished I read this when I was 12.  I mean, it's a great book, but as a responsible adult, the rather flippant decision to chase after treasure buried by murderous pirates and dragging along a kid seems not so realistic.

Anyway, without spoiling the whole book, they get a crew together, with the help of a cook, Long John Silver, who happens to have one leg.  Jim would be alarmed by this, remembering old Billy Bones' fears, but Silver is so nice and jovial that his suspicions are allayed.  They set sail, find the island, the crew (which thanks to Silver is made up of about 80% pirates) mutinies, lives are endangered, pirates get drunk, Jim saves the day numerous times, Jim almost gets killed numerous times, most of the pirates end up dead, and the good guys win by finding the treasure (with the help of a hermit, a former pirate, who lives on the island) and sailing off, leaving the remaining pirates as castaways, except for Silver, who has helped them.  They go to South America to fix the boat for the trip back to England, and it's there that Silver escapes.  They return to England with the treasure, and Jim vows never to do anything like that again.  The End.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that while Jim Hawkins is a well-drawn out and sympathetic character, the rest of the "good guys", like the squire and the doctor, are rather bland characters with whom the reader finds it difficult to sympathize or relate.  The pirates are much more interesting, even though (or perhaps because) they quarrel, they get drunk, and they can barely keep it together.  And Long John Silver is a great character.  He's charismatic, and he seems to be genuinely fond of Jim, but he can also kill a man without blinking an eye.  He's also very opportunistic, and switches sides several times.  Towards the end of the book, when Silver is head of the pirate gang, he captures Jim and tells him he'll save him by telling the other pirates that he's a hostage and they shouldn't kill him.  And realizing the pirates are doomed, due mostly to their drunken disarray, he makes a deal with Jim that he'll save his life if Jim saves his by telling the doctor and the squire how he saved Jim, and how he shouldn't go to the gallows.  Jim agrees.  Yet, when Silver, Jim, and the pirate gang are approaching where they think the treasure is buried, Silver gets a greedy gleam in his eye that tells Jim that Silver will likely kill him so as not have to share the treasure.  And then when the treasure turns out not to be there, Silver turns back to helping Jim.  Silver's capable of great evil, and totally duplicitous, but so much more alive than the doctor and squire.  Plus, he repeatedly uses the phrase "shiver my timbers".  Let's face it, pirates have more fun.

So all in all, a good read, but probably better read as a kid.  Although, having said that, there are two reasons why it might be better appreciated as an adult.  The first is that the language can be archaic at times...there are definitely some passages in Victorian english, as well as pirate jargon, that were hard to figure out.  And second, it's a no-brainer to pair reading this with sipping on some fine Caribbean rum.  As I type, I'm having some Zaya 12 year old rum, from Guatemala.  This is some of the finest sipping rum I've ever's dark brown and sweet like carmel.  It's hard to find, but well worth it when you do.  Yo ho ho indeed!


Ladytink_534 said...

Lol! Love your opening paragraph!!!

Tina said...

Agree on all accounts! :-)

As a non-native speaker reading the book in English, I indeed did find the language a bit archaic and tricky to understand at times, but it was well worth the struggle. As you mention, it is a true classic, and it's easy to see how a lot of both jargon and "general pirate knowledge" stems from this book.

In addition, I gave my 10-year-old a translated copy of the book, which he read with great pleasure. So this was indeed a reading experience both of us could enjoy and share. Excellent! :-)