Review 1835: Kidnapped

His mother long dead and his father recently having passed away, young David Balfour is ready to set out to seek his fortune. But family friend Reverend Campbell gives him a letter from his father to take to an Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws near Edinburgh. David hopes that if he has a wealthy relative, the man will help him to a career.

When David arrives at Shaws, he finds it incomplete, almost a ruin, and Ebenezer Balfour to be unwelcoming. He is David’s uncle, but right away he sends David up a ruined staircase almost to his death. Then, once his uncle has agreed to go with David to a lawyer, Mr. Rankiller, to discuss David’s inheritance, he has David kidnapped by an unscrupulous sea captain, who is supposed to take him to work as a white slave on a plantation.

North of Scotland, the ship David is on runs over a small boat in a storm, and the only survivor of the boat is Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland Jacobite who has been collecting money for his exiled chief. He has saved his belt full of gold, but David overhears the ship’s officers planning to kill the man for his money. David alerts Stewart, and the two hold off the crew in the roundhouse, ending with a much-depleted crew. Ultimately, this results in a shipwreck.

Beached in the far northwestern Highlands, David and Alan must avoid capture by the English army while they journey to Edinburgh to reclaim David’s inheritance and find Alan another ship for France.

This novel was my favorite Stevenson book as a child, so I was curious how I would view it now. I enjoyed it very much. David and Alan are interesting contrasting characters, and the novel gives a good idea of living in the Highlands in 1751. It’s full of adventure, too, a fun read.

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Review 1815: The Black Arrow

I occasionally collect children’s books, mostly those with good illustrations, and a few months ago I started thinking about the books that used to be readily available, all adventure stories by various authors but illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. I decided to look for some of those, and the ones I bought were both by Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (my personal favorite) and one I’d never read, The Black Arrow.

Young Dick Shelton has lived under the wardship of Sir Daniel Brackley for most of his life and is loyal to him even though he seems to switch sides in the Wars of the Roses rather frequently. But mysterious attacks against his men by a group calling themselves the Black Arrow begin to awaken Dick to feelings of just resentment against Sir Daniel. For he has used the war and his position to cheat people out of their property.

Dick is on his way from Sir Daniel’s encampment when he encounters a boy named Jack Matcham whom he met in the camp. The boy (who everyone but Dick can see is really a girl) asks Dick for his help to get to Holywood. Dick helps Jack, but they fall back into Sir Daniel’s hands. Once there, Dick begins asking about the death of his father, for he has heard rumors that Sir Daniel was responsible.

This is an entertaining adventure story, and I’m not sure why it isn’t as highly regarded as Treasure Island (which has never been one of my favorites). The only thing I can think of to make it not as popular is the archaic speech Stevenson uses, which, while probably not that authentic, did not strike me as inauthentic, if that makes any sense. The novel features plenty of action, some appealing characters and some villains, and Richard of Gloucester (eventually to become Richard III) even makes an appearance as a young man.

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Day 1180: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

Cover for Travels with a DonkeyMary Stewart’s My Brother Michael is the first place I heard of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. It is a short travelogue of a journey Stevenson took in 1878 in the remote Cévennes area of southern France with only a donkey for company.

This book is full of descriptions of the people and scenery and relates with some humor the author’s struggles with Modestine, the donkey. It also tells some of the legends and history of the area, which was the site of a religious revolt by the Camisards, a sect of the Huguenots, in the 17th century.

Although this history is interesting, for my tastes Stevenson spent too much time discussing religion, particularly as he asserts at one point in the book that he does not believe in God. Yet, he makes comments that sound like he does believe. He has several discussions about religion with people he meets on the trip, and he muses on the subject.

It seems natural to compare this work with that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, particularly the trip he made as a youngster through Europe. But Fermor’s work is at once more sparkling, witty, and erudite, although the type of content is the same. I felt that this book was only of moderate interest.

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Day 538: Treasure Island

Cover for Treasure IslandIf I had to guess which of Robert Louis Stevenson’s books is the most popular, I’d pick Treasure Island. My own favorite is Kidnapped, though, and I probably wouldn’t have reread Treasure Island except that it came free with a reading app for my iPad. Still, it’s a pretty good adventure story.

The plot is familiar to everyone. Jim Hawkins and his parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn in an isolated location near the English seashore. A shifty old sailor comes to stay. He seems to be on the watch for someone, and asks Jim to alert him to strangers. Soon more shifty sailors arrive looking for him. The Hawkins’ guest is drinking himself to death, though, and he dies soon after Jim’s father does. In his sea chest is a treasure map.

Jim has gone for help to the Squire Trelawny and Dr. Livesey. Soon they prepare a ship to go collect the treasure, taking Jim with them. A crucial misstep occurs when the Squire hires the crew without waiting for the captain (something that seemed not only improper but stupid to me). He hires as the cook a one-legged man named Long John Silver. Silver and a good part of the crew turn out to be pirates who know about the map and want the treasure.

I was struck by a few cases when the protagonists behave nonsensically, the biggest being abandoning the ship when they find out a mutiny is afoot. Almost all the sailors are ashore at that point. It seemed like they should just sail away to another part of the island.

Still, the novel is written really well, and Stevenson is good at building suspense. I’m sure that successive generations of young people are thrilled to discover this adventure story.

Day 452: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Cover for Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky traces the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny from shortly before the two meet. At that time, he was a young man still trying to decide his profession and she was a married woman, although separated from her husband, ten years his senior and with children.

Fanny Osbourne has a great creative urge, and she has moved to Paris for art lessons for both herself and her grown daughter Belle, leaving her philandering husband in America. Fanny meets Stevenson while on a recuperative visit to southern France after the death of her youngest son.

The novel follows closely the entirety of their relationship from courtship to his death and her life afterwards, mostly from Fanny’s point of view. They separate because Fanny wants to give her marriage another chance, but they finally come together again. Stevenson, called Louis by his friends, is a sickly man, and his health often requires them to move to climates that are better for his lungs. When it seems as though he cannot live much longer, they find that his health revives on ocean voyages, so they go to sea and finally settle in Samoa until his death.

Although Horan appears to follow faithfully the course and events of the couple’s life together, and the novel is interesting from that standpoint, she never really brings the characters or settings to life. Aside from Fanny’s devotion to Louis, Horan concentrates on her frustration at not being able to live her own creative life. The characters seem relatively flat.

http://www.netgalley.comI was struck also by how, on the original voyage to the South Seas, Horan describes almost nothing but one chieftain until they get to Samoa. If she was working from journals or letters, surely she could have researched further to find out or even imagine what the islands would have been like for Louis and Fanny, seeing them the first time. Instead, we come into their voyage toward the end, as if all the sights and experiences are routine. I’m missing the sense of wonder. Although this novel should have been fascinating in its focus on some amazing lives, it generally does not fulfill its promise.