Book Review:

Treasure Island

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Length: 232 pages
Publisher: (Various), first in 1883
Genre: Fiction
Language: English
ISBN: 1416500294
Rating: Five stars! 5/5 Stars!


Adventure!  Mutiny!  Pirates!  Treasure!

All of the four things mentioned above can be found at your fingertips with Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Before Johnny Depp stumbled off of the Black Pearl, before Errol Flynn took us on swashbuckling journeys, and even before "Lucky" Jack Aubrey took to the water, Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins thrilled fans of high-seas adventure.

I had originally read this book when I was far younger, but I recently picked up another copy of Treasure Island to re-read the sotry again. The first half of the book is highly enjoyable, one that I recalled warmly as I re-read it. But as the book progressed, I was astounded at how difficult the reading was becoming; the pirate slang and their use of awkward metaphors obviously grew proportionate to the amount of pirates in the scene.

In one of the few moments of humor, the hero Hawkins even says, "`Well,' I said, `I don't understand one word that you've been saying. But that's neither here nor there[...].'" The dialects makes the book that much more realistic; in my mind, however, I wonder if children reading this book fully comprehend it, or were they simply more familiar with the straining english dialects of the 19th century? After spoiling myself with easier modern reads, I had to hunker down a bit and really concentrate my efforts in trying to fully understand the subtext. The rough slang slowed my reading down greatly, but also helped to increase my enjoyment.

The inspiration for the story began in 1881 when, while vacationing in Scotland with his stepson, Stevenson painted an island which became the inspiration for the novel. He soon wrote 15 chapters, and completed the rest in Switzerland at the rate of one chapter a day. It was finally published as an entire novel in 1883.

Stevenson throws together goods that have become legendary in pirate lore: Pirates with fantastic names, like Captain Flint, Billy Bones, Black Dog, Pew, Israel Hands (based on the real-life member of Blackbeard's crew), and the now-infamous Long John Silver, himself with a parrot on his shoulder; a single treasure map that has three red crosses (designating two piles of treasure, one pile of arms); a beautiful schooner that's put through its paces; a 23 member crew (excluding Jim Hawkins, Doctor Livesey, and Squire Trelawney), most of whom become gentlemen of fortune; mutiny; double-crosses; the shanty "15 men on a Dead Man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum"; the notorious Jolly Roger; spirits, superstition, and lore; and even a skeleton or two.

Treasure Island actually refers to the fictitious Skeleton Island---perhaps an inspiration for the children's book The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966)---, a sweltering jungle in the day and eerily submerged in mists in the early mornings. A strange coincidence I found led me to some interesting finds. Stevenson named an anchorage point after the pirate Captain Kidd. In 1935, Harold T. Wilkins published a book entitled "New Facts about Mysterious Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island Chests," in which can be found one of Kidd's treasure maps. Two years after Wilkins's book was published a treasure hunter found an uncanny resemblance between this "Skeleton Island" and Oak Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Oak Island's impervious Water Pit is purportedly where Captain Kidd buried part of his treasure before being hanged in 1701 (the Pit is also the main inspiration for the 1998 novel Riptide). In a twist worthy of Robinson himself, despite Kidd's map uncovering some of Oak Island's mysteries, Wilkins eventually stepped forward to admit his maps were fabricated. But was Stevenson alluding to Kidd's connection with Oak Island?

Treasure Island is an adventurous classic I heartily recommend anyone to read, regardless of their age. I personally advocate reading the book if you're older, or re-reading it, to fully enjoy the environment created through the striking language. A fantastic aid in understanding pirate slang is the online Encyclopaedia Piratica. While you're at it, go to any map engine and plug in the latitude and longitude found at the end of Chapter 6, "The Captain's Papers," to see where Billy Bones claimed booty!

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