Liesl Schillinger's recent review of Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion that appeared in the New York Times Book Review prompted me to read/listen to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have no doubt that everyone reading this review right now is very familiar with this classic, first published as a book in 1883 (it originally ran as a serialized story in the children's magazine Young Folks from 1881 - 1882) even if you have never actually read the book. I haven't. I listened, intermittently, as my husband read it out loud to our son some ten years ago and, before that, I saw the movie Muppet Treasure Island over and over as we owned the video cassette. But, Schillinger's review and, more pertinently, my desire to read Silver: Return to Treasure Island prompted me to dive in. When I did, Silver: Return to Treasure Island, was still only available in the UK in hardcover so I opted for the audio book narrated by the Scottish actor David Tennant, also known as "the 10th Doctor" to those of you who are not Dr Who fans, and he does a spectacular job. Because I knew I was going to be listening to the audio of Silver: Return to Treasure Island, I decided to listen to Treasure Island as well, narrated by Michael Page, while reverting to the book from time to time to look at the wonderful illustrations and see the words in print.
As I said, I am sure that all of you know the basic plot points of Treasure Island. As I read, knowing how much my husband loved this book, I kept asking him, why? What's so great about it? Things about Treasure Island that surprised me: The language, between being antiquated and also frequently spoken in the dialect of sailors, is often hard to grasp. Not impossible, mind you, and the gist of the story always comes through, but it was a bit of work on my part. Also, there is a lot of violence in this book! Pirates and sailors get killed left and right! Old Blind Pew gets trampled by horses! That never happened in the Muppet version! Captain Flint killed one of his men and used him as a directional marker, his bones pointed toward the spot of the buried treasure. However, both my husband and my younger son, who I was telling this story to over the course of the week as we walked to school, helped me to realize what is so compelling and timeless about Robert Louis Stevenson's book and that is Long John Silver. It was my son who helped me to see this. As I neared the end of the story he stopped me and said, "Which side is Long John Silver on?" That, my friends, is what makes Treasure Island a book that is read over and over almost 130 years later. The compelling, mercurial character of Long John Silver. And, of course, who doesn't love a good story about buried treasure? Read Treasure Island out loud to your kids, be sure to buy the edition with the illustrations by NC Wyeth, and enjoy!
Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion
Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion is a magnificent, adventure, beautifully written (Motion was Britain's poet laureate from 1999 to 2009) and rich with adventure. It is also not a book to read out loud to you kids at bedtime the way you should Treasure Island. To use Schillinger's words, the marooners, members of Silver's crew left behind in Treasure Island, have spent their captivity on the island creating a busy settlement where "vile goings-on, events to rival Conrad's Congo for sadistic depravity" are routine. In Treasure Island the fighting and murdering was in the name of treasure, in Silver: Return to Treasure Island, the violence is a result of bigotry, boredom and drunkenness on power and moonshine, elevating the tale in tone and meaning to a more adult level. But, I am getting ahead of the story.
Silver: Return to Treasure Island begins in July of 1802, some 35 years after the crew of the Hispaniola have returned to England, Long John Silver having escaped somewhere in South America to meet up with his shrewd and trustworthy wife, referred to only as a "woman of color" in Stevenson's book. Both Hawkins and Silver have set up inns, the Hispaniola and the Spyglass, respectively. Both are fathers, Hawkins' wife having died in childbirth, Silver's consumed her own intense brand of religion and prayer. Young Jim, who says of himself, "I was never a wicked child, but a disappointment to my father all the same," the spends his days wandering the marshy estuaries of the eastern reaches of the Thames, running errands for his father and listening to stories in the taproom. Natalie Silver, or Natty as she prefers, is roughly the same age as Jim and has had a similar upbringing in Wapping. However, her father is some twenty years older than Jim's and at death's door and needs his daughter to carry out his dying wish. Natty, along with her a pet mynah bird named Spot, arrives, shrouded and mysterious, having rowed her way to the Hispaniola to summon the disbelieving Jim. When he finally realizes the dark figure wants to speak to him, he steps into her boat and his life changes forever. Natty has come to ask Jim to steal his father's map and return to Treasure Island for the silver that was left behind.
Silver: Return to Treasure Island is narrated by Jim, who tells his story with the benefit of hindsight which helps foreshadow and build tension in the story. It is clear from the start that Jim is captivated by Natty and, as the story progresses and their time together on the Silver Nightingale stretches out before them, Jim falls in love with Silver's daughter who, for her own safety, is passing as a boy on this voyage. Her true identity - both as a girl and the daughter of Long John Silver - and Jim's is known only to Captain Beamish. I strongly suggest reading Silver: Return to Treasure Island with Treasure Island fresh in your mind, as the references to Stevenson's book will be all the more enjoyable. Israel Hands, the pirate Jim Hawkins the elder fought to the death in Treasure Island, is represented in Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Jordan Hands, nephew to Israel. Jordan Hands cuts an intriguing, if dangerous figure in the book. And, of course, crew member of the Silver Nightingale named Stevenson who spends his time in the crow's-nest. When the Silver Nightingale makes it to Treasure Island in the dark of night, the fires on shore let them know immediately that the marooners are alive and they dock on the other side of the island where the encounter a man in a pit, whimpering. The man is Scotland is part of the cargo of a slaving ship that wrecked on Treasure Island some five years earlier and he is fleeing from his captors, the marooners and surviving crew who have established their own plantation of sorts on the Island. As with Treasure Island, the reversals of fortune and turn of events are breathtaking. What elevates Silver: Return to Treasure Island beyond a children's book is the moral aspects of the story and the brutality of the marooners. Nevertheless, Motion manages to keep the excitement and danger high and the reader guessing until the end of the book who, if anyone, will return home with the silver.
Here is a glimpse or two into some of Motion's beautiful writing.
Chapter 8 : Reading the Map
My father advised me never to pick over the reasons for a decision once it has been taken. As a young boy I thought this meant he always knew his own mind. By the time I left for Treasure Island, I had come to believe he preferred not to look at past mistakes.
Perhaps this change of opinion proved nothing except the doubt I felt about my own behaviour. Certainly, when I woke head-to-to with Natty in the Spyglass, and lifted my head to inspect the marshes warming in the early sun, I imagined that each mist-wraith I saw wandering across them had come to accuse me. The whole shimmering panorama spoke directly to my moral sense - and I clutched nervously at the satchel inside my shirt, where I found the map safe enough.
When a fuller consciousness returned, I realised not even a whole army of accusers could now force me to return my prize to the sea-chest from which I had stolen it. Accepting this, I also understood that henceforth I would do better to keep looking forward, contemplating my future, rather than sneaking guilty glances over my shoulder.
Book: Gift from my wonderful friend in London!
Audio Book: Purchased