Books on Tap met virtually to discuss Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, as per our tradition of reading a classic at least once a year. Primarily remembered as a boy’s adventure story, it did lend itself to a lively discussion.
Those of us reading it for the first time were put off by the nautical terms and more than one was confused by the staging of the action. Others were better able to engage by listening to the audiobook or watching a film adaptation (see below).
We were surprised to find that many of the things we think of as pirate cliches are present already in this 1883 novel (serialized from 1881-1882). We encountered men with peg legs and one eyes, parrots on shoulders, mutinies, barrels of rum, pieces of eight and undifferentiated “natives.” Hidden in this adventure tale is an anti-hero. Long John Silver is feared as a violent pirate before he shows up on the page. Jim, our young hero, is terrified of the man until they are thrown together and Jim recognizes the man’s cunning charm. Stevenson doesn’t make a moral judgement but does spotlight the way that greed overcomes ethics and creates shifting alliances. Due to the novel’s dense language, casual violence, sole woman character and questionable representation of “natives,” we wouldn’t recommend it to today’s young reluctant readers.
Stevensons’s biography intrigued us as much as the novel. Born into wealth in Edinburgh in 1850, he had severe respiratory illness for most of his life. He frequently traveled to warmer areas in Europe, and the United States, dying in Samoa at 44. He followed a widow from Switzerland to the US and later wrote Treasure Island to entertain her son. We wondered if his imagination blossomed during periods of isolation while recovering. One of our members remembers visiting Robert Louis Stevenson-related sites while a child in Northern California.
Books on Tap will meet again on November 5 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). We’ll be reading My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite,which the library owns in multiple formats. Email Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download.