Every so often I get a mixture of niggling guilt and excitement when I spy an undiscovered classic on my shelf that I haven’t picked up yet. Although this is really shallow (I am bearing my soul here!), I find that having an attractive copy of some of these daunting books does encourage me to pick them up. I think that Vintage have some of the best out there and I’m positive that in 100 years time, their red spines could become just as distinctive and desirable as Penguin’s classic orange.
As it happens, I originally thought that Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘children’s book’ Treasure Island was written much earlier than it actually was – as recently as 1881. Rather than being met by (what I feared would be) a literary minefield, I discovered what is, quite simply, a rip-roaring ‘Boy’s Own’ style adventure story… only with pirates instead of scouts…
Jim Hawkins is our hero; a young boy who is dragged off on a trip to Treasure Island following the death of old sea dog ‘Billy Bones’ in his mother’s tavern. Bones spends his short time ashore hunted and hounded by various sinister figures and, upon his death, a map of the infamous island is discovered, duly revealing the location of unimaginable riches left behind by Captain Flint. Two highly respectable community figures; Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney choose to commandeer a ship and crew and, with young Jim Hawkins in tow as cabin boy, set out across the seven seas to bag themselves some gold.
What follows is, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have read this iconic novel yet, a whirlwind tale of intrigue, danger and betrayal and by golly did I get well and truly whisked along with it! Ship’s cook Long John Silver is not only one of the most recognisable characters in the history of literary fiction but a joy to behold and a complete enigma. Introducing many of the stereotypical features we associate with pirates nowadays in popular culture, Long John (or ‘Barbeque’, as he’s known among his shipmates) has got the whole package. Big beard, peg leg, a vindictive little parrot sitting on his shoulder. You name it. He is an icon and he’s likable to boot… but can we really trust him?
This legendary story is supported by a grimy looking cast who just about avoid becoming two-dimensional and clichéd in this setting. When Israel Hands snarls down at Jim from the foremast, I believe it all. By this late stage in his distinguished literary career, Robert Louis Stevenson has clearly mastered his art; Silver is a complex fellow who dupes the reader at every turn and his creator’s prose is so comfortable and accomplished that his imagination is left to run wild and create what is the definitive pirate novel… and what a novel.
Stevenson’s ending is abrupt, and the only jarring aspect to a classic that I feel has given me a large shove along the path to becoming a more well-rounded and educated reader. From hovering over the beaches of Treasure Island one minute to discovering the eventual fate of our protagonists the next, Jim’s future came about far too soon for me. I was, after all, having so much fun and had been rudely awoken by the most vivid dream I have ever had…………………….. Peter Pan and Captain Hook, here I come!