Thursday, 3 November 2011

November 2011: Robert Louis Stephenson's "Treasure Island" and our next book

Avast be'ind, mateys!  October was all about pirates.  We sailed on the Hispaniola from Bristol to the Caribbean with Jim Hawkins, hid in an apple barrel, defeated a mutiny, disposed of Israel Hands, discovered Captain Flint's treasure - and got safely back from the eighteenth century to Bath Library in time to discuss Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island at our November meeting.  And no, we didn't talk like pirates ... much!

First serialised in 1881-2 and then published as a book in 1883, Treasure Island established the gold standard for pirate stories ever since, so there was much for us to talk about: the - often impenetrable - technical details of knots and rigging; the characterisations of the heroes and villains; the nature of leadership; the serial style of the book with its cliffhangers and short chapters; Long John Silver's longevity as a fictional icon; and the moral ambiguity and complexity of this most manipulative and yet most enduring of characters.

But does Treasure Island still appeal?  The answer seems to be a resounding "yes" - with some reservations.  Despite the occasional nautical language, it was variously described as gripping and easy to read, with atmospheric opening chapters and some truly terrifying characters - particularly Pew (who we learned is never actually called "Blind Pew" in the book).  However, there is an imbalance between Stephenson's multi-dimensional, often complex characterisations of the "baddies/pirates" versus his more one-dimensional and ultimately less interesting "goodies/gentlemen".  It is possible to believe in and be both terrified by and attracted to Silver ... as Jim was.  He has the qualities of a leader and the flaws of a man.  Squire Trelawney on the other hand has little depth as a character and less for the reader to care about or relate to in consequence.
Believed to be the first story book to deliberately target both adults and children, creating the "cross-over" genre exploited most recently by J K Rowling's Harry Potter series, Treasure Island is still borrowed from libraries by all age groups.  It has been reproduced in a wide range of formats, from film to audio, from cartoon books to Ladybird children's versions, and as a result the story is extremely accessible to a wide range of readers, listeners and watchers. 

As a group, our "memorable moments" were wide-ranging, demonstrating the book's breadth, depth and appeal.  From the skeleton arranged to point towards Flint's treasure, to Ben Gunn ("many's the long night I've dreamed of cheese - toasted, mostly"), to Jim's mortal combat with Israel Hands on the deserted Hispaniola, to Pew blindly tapping his way towards Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow ... and many more.

Treasure Island has established an enduring legacy.  From established and familiar catch phrases like "Them that die'll be the lucky ones", or "Toasted mostly", or "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum" through to how we think about pirates and parrots and treasure maps where X marks the spot ... and NEVER forget the Black Spot!

Next month's book is What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.  What a contrast that will be!

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