word craft


The Book That Influenced Me

Treasure Island

If I had to pick one book—from my ear­ly reading—the one that most influ­enced the way I think about books and the writ­ing of books, it would be Trea­sure Island, writ­ten by Robert Louis Steven­son. Though he had already estab­lished him­self as a gift­ed writer of short sto­ries and essays, Trea­sure Island, aston­ish­ing­ly, was his first novel.

He would write, “On a chill Sep­tem­ber morn­ing, by the cheek of a brisk fire, and the rain drum­ming on the win­dow, I began The Sea Cook, for that was the orig­i­nal title. I have begun (and fin­ished) a num­ber of oth­er books. But I can­not remem­ber hav­ing sat down to one of them with more complacency.”

Com­pla­cent! Beyond all else, this is a won­der­ful­ly throb­bing nov­el, with more ener­gy and life on every page than some books have with 300 pages.

Robert Louis Steven­son [Wikipedia]

Build­ing on his famil­iar­i­ty with ear­li­er nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry writ­ers of adven­ture sto­ries — Kingston, Bal­lan­tyne, Mar­ry­at, and Coop­er — Steven­son meant this as a sto­ry for boys and wrote Trea­sure Island in par­tic­u­lar for his step­son Lloyd Osbourne.

Famous­ly, the idea of the book began with a draw­ing of a map — a map of what would be the island with the trea­sure [see the end of this arti­cle]. Any edi­tion of the book should have that map repli­cat­ed. There have been numer­ous attempts to locate the “real,” island, and has been claimed from Puer­to Rico to Cal­i­for­nia to Scot­land. I have lit­tle doubt that it is fictitious.

As for the tale itself, there is extra­or­di­nary inten­si­ty in the telling, for the most part in the voice of young Jim Hawkins. That, I have lit­tle doubt, is part of its attrac­tion for youth­ful readers.

And the char­ac­ters that peo­ple the sto­ry, oh the char­ac­ters! Beyond all else, there is Long John Sil­ver, the leader of the pirates, who swings from sooth­ing kind­ness to mur­der­ous betray­er with nary a slip of light between. This oscil­la­tion, in fact, reminds me of anoth­er of Stevenson’s great works, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, writ­ten a few years later.

Treasure Island illustration NC Wyeth Absconding with the treasure
“Abscond­ing with the trea­sure,” N.C. Wyeth illus­tra­tion for Trea­sure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

It is Sil­ver, one-legged, peg-legged Sil­ver (and his con­stant com­pan­ion, the par­rot Cap­tain Flint) who push­es the sto­ry for­ward even as he push­es his mon­ey-mad crew for­ward. Sil­ver is filled with such life, such charm, such rich lan­guage that I think we are relieved (as I sus­pect Steven­son was) that at the end of the sto­ry he escapes to live out his (fic­tion­al) life.

But there is also Ben Gunn (and his deep love of cheese), Old Pew with his blind­ness, and Bil­ly Bones with his songs. I can talk about them as if they were old friends.

The good guys, the squire and the doc­tor, are not near­ly as inter­est­ing char­ac­ters as the bad guys. Truth be told they have no more right­ful claim to the trea­sure than the pirates.

Indeed the sto­ry is full of moral ambiguity.

It is also, to be sure, a vio­lent sto­ry with much death and may­hem. Only five of the orig­i­nal crew return to Eng­land. That said, all the fight­ing and mur­ders have an ele­ment of fan­ta­sy about them, as if to say, if you are going to tell a tale of pirates you just have to do this — but don’t wor­ry — it’s just a story.

N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth [Wikipedia]

And if you can get hold of the book with the 1911 full-col­or illus­tra­tions by N.C. Wyeth, they match the genius of the text. For many years I had a copy of Wyeth’s image of Blind Pew over my writ­ing desk, a reminder to work hard and find my own blind way as I wrote.

As for Steven­son, nev­er a healthy per­son, he died very young, leav­ing behind a lega­cy of a won­der­ful per­son, much loved and admired.

Hen­ry James, the great Eng­lish writer, who was his good friend, wrote this to Stevenson’s wid­ow. “For myself, how shall I tell you how much pow­er and shab­bier the whole world seems [with Stevenson’s death]. He light­ed up one whole side of the globe and was him­self a whole province of one’s imagination.”

I can say as much for Trea­sure Island.

Map from Trea­sure Island, writ­ten by Robert Louis Steven­son [Wiki­me­dia Commons]

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