Return to 'Treasure Island:' A Childhood Classic Still Thrills

Re-reading books we loved when we were kids can be a perilous business. Encountered again in the cooler light of adulthood, stories that might have struck our 10- or 12-year-old sensibilities as moving, scary or funny can often come across as... well, as kind of lame.
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Re-reading books we loved when we were kids can be a perilous business. Encountered again in the cooler light of adulthood, stories that might have struck our 10- or 12-year-old sensibilities as moving, scary or funny can often come across as... well, as kind of lame. More than enough touchstones in our lives lose their luster through the years; why re-visit those totems of youth, especially when the chances of disappointment -- in the books, and perhaps even in our younger, less-discerning selves -- are so high?

All of these concerns attended my recent return to Treasure Island -- a tale that, when I first read it as a pre-teen, seemed absolutely perfect. No doubt the color plates of N.C. Wyeth's magnificent paintings throughout added immeasurably to the book's power. But Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story -- a boy among men; a search for buried treasure; a one-legged pirate -- held me from the opening lines, and did not let go until I reached the famous, final image of our protagonist Jim Hawkins, bolt upright in bed, pulled from a nightmare by a sharp voice ringing in his ears: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"

Maybe Treasure Island inhabited such a huge place in my imagination because it was the first book I ever read, on my own, that cast light into the darkest corners of the grown-up world. Not a fairy-tale grown-up world, or a cartoonish grown-up world, but a world in which blind greed drove men to unspeakable acts, drunkenness was a natural state of being, mendacity was a given and death by willful murder was a constant threat.

But could this "boy's adventure novel," written 130 years ago by a 32-year-old tubercular Scot, possibly appeal to an adult -- a husband and father -- alive in 2013, decades after he first made the acquaintance of Jim, Squire Trelawney, Ben Gunn, Blind Pew, Long John Silver and so many other indelible characters?

To answer that question with a mere "yes" would hardly do justice to how immensely gratifying, gripping and (a trait not to be despised) entertaining I found Treasure Island, all these years later. In fact, revisiting the story from the vantage of adulthood illuminated elements of the plot and the story's key characters that were entirely lost on that young, long-ago version of myself.

For example: It's astonishing, coming to the book with an intimate understanding of what alcohol can do to individuals and to fellowships, to realize how much of the narrative centers around booze -- specifically, demon rum. The pirates depicted in the book, almost to a man, are little more than cutthroats and sots; when not brawling with one another or trying to garrote, pistol, knife or otherwise destroy anyone they consider an enemy -- or even a nuisance -- they're swilling rum in the tropical heat. When they bellow out a particular line from their infernal song, as they do again and again -- "Drink and the devil had done for the rest" -- the adult reader has a dark inkling of what that might mean.

The younger reader (this younger reader, anyway) thought it was a catchy tune.

And then, of course, there are the book's extraordinarily vivid personalities. The marooned Ben Gunn's third-person blather -- largely comical in the ears of a young reader -- has a terrible authenticity when "heard" so many years later. Yes, the grown-up thinks, that's just how a man would sound if he hadn't spoken to another living soul for years. Crazy as hell.

Squire Trelawney, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of fatuous, domineering gasbag most of us have met at some point in our lives -- in our jobs, our social circles, our extended families. Trelawney hardly registered at all when I first read the book; this time around, I was stunned by how central a role he played -- and by the wry way in which Stevenson made the squire's posturing both preposterous and pitiable.

Finally, there's Long John Silver. Arguably one of the finest and earliest portraits in Western literature of a true sociopath, Silver is a monstrously magnetic creation. Charming, sly, terrifying and utterly amoral, the eloquent ship's cook and head mutineer endures, at least in part, as the archetypal pirate because Stevenson paints such a phenomenal picture of the physical, outward man:

"His left leg was cut off close by the hip," Jim notes of his first sight of Silver, "and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham -- plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling."

Most young readers recall this, and this alone, about Silver -- that he was tall, strong, had one leg, owned a parrot, and got around marvelously well on his crutch. What the older reader takes away from Treasure Island, on the other hand, is the uncanny sense of having spent time in the company of a hugely charismatic gangster.

(Note: Many film versions of Treasure Island have been attempted, none of them very good and none featuring a Silver worthy of the name. The story deserves a great movie treatment and, especially, a portrait of this engaging maniac that can match Stevenson's brilliant conception. Daniel Day-Lewis, perhaps?)

Do kids even read Treasure Island anymore? I hope they do. But more than that, I urge anyone who read it as a youngster, and loved it, to pick it up again now, as an oldster. There is so much to recommend it. Stevenson's sense of pacing, for example, is unmatched this side of a James M. Cain thriller -- the story moves like a freight train, but never feels rushed. There is humor here that no child would grasp, and bleaker themes that no child should grasp. (There's time enough for youngsters to learn those grim lessons.) And, as with all good books written ostensibly for kids but geared, at least in part, toward adults, from the Harry Potter series to Number the Stars, Treasure Island celebrates what matters -- friendship, loyalty, courage -- without ever feeling sappy, or manipulative.

Treasure Island is a great novel. Not a great kids' novel, but a great novel, period -- and there's little doubt that I'll return to it again, years down the road, and find that it still possesses the same power to thrill, delight and surprise that it had when, so very long ago, I first fell under its spell.

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