Stepping back to the 19th century for a moment

Last weekend I took my kids to the used bookstore to bring in some books for trade, and to browse through the shelves because they had never been there before. I picked up Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (can’t wait!) and Wicked.

First up was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a man who shares my birthday. I’m sorry to say that once again, my only prior reference to this book was from an alternate source – in this case, the Disney movie Treasure Planet. I was intrigued to read the original work.

The book tells the tale of Jim Hawkins, a young boy who recently lost his father and, through the family’s inn, meets and falls in with a band of pirates. One of the pirates and central characters is Long John Silver, who was hired on as the ship cook but also becomes something of an unlikely protector of Jim.

As the crew disbands and embarks on separate quests to find the lost treasure, Jim has to constantly question who deserves his loyalty and trust, and who will be loyal to him. One of the most enigmatic of the pirates is Silver. His loyalty seems to shift as the wind blows, so Jim’s guard is always up, even as he has to throw himself in with Silver’s group. I found the uneasy relationship between Silver and Jim to be the most engaging part of the book.

However, it is also filled with intrigue and pirate adventure as the group moves from the ship to the island and back again in their search for treasure. In fact, this novel is where the idea of buried treasure and a treasure map marking the spot originated.

Stevenson wrote this book as an entertainment for his 12-year-old stepson during a rainy vacation. They were drawing one day and Stevenson sketched out a map for Treasure Island, which inspired him to write about what might take place there. He would write in the morning, then read the drafts to his stepson and father in the afternoon. His father also contributed to the manuscript, with a list of the items found in a sea chest that Jim and his mother go through.

I found it interesting that he wrote this while on vacation, similar to Nabokov writing Lolita while butterfly hunting with his wife. A change of pace and stepping away from the pressures of daily life must help inspire these great authors, as it does for most of us. I also love the family dynamic that surrounded the writing of the novel, with Stevenson reading aloud and the rest of the family offering feedback.

Stevenson also wrote another favorite of mine, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. He definitely has a gift for creating fascinating, and therefore enduring, characters.

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