Treasure IslandTreasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

It seems a long time since the last evening that Brian and I sat out in the lawn chair with our books after supper. That was at the end of May, and since then life seems to have turned into a muddle of one thing after another. It’s the busy season at work, Brian’s been in the hospital for almost three weeks, and to add to the confusion, he was in the middle of selling his house and looking for an apartment just before he ended up in the ER. So I’m spending my work days trying to get a thousand schoolkids on and off a few dozen buses, more often than not in a steady all-day downpour, then changing mental gears to spend evenings with Brian in the hospital trying to help him sort out his housing chaos and generally cheering him up and keeping him company, with my own assorted errands sandwiched in between. Sitting down after supper with a book just isn’t going to happen when supper itself doesn’t seem to happen very regularly.

A few nights ago, too weary in my mind to fall asleep, I thought that what I needed was a little dose of something that’s been missing from my life lately — a book. An easy book, an escape book. Something to read on my pillow, curled up comfortably until my mind was quiet enough for my eyes to close. I turned to the oldest books on the bookshelves, the ones I read as a girl, the well-worn ones that are pure comfort. Ran my hand over the row, and pulled out this one. Yep, Treasure Island. That was it, that was exactly what I needed.

For a few hours, this book let me be 12 years old again, with nothing to do but run off adventuring with Jim Hawkins and Doctor Livesey and the dour Captain and the silly old Squire, being creeped out delightfully by Billy Bones and Blind Pew and Israel Hands, laughing at Ben Gunn, and shaking my head at that cagey shape-shifting chameleon Long John Silver. I read the whole thing in just three nights, and fell firmly asleep each night with childlike soundness.

This was already an escape book the first time I ever read it, — escape from a dreary reading class regime. The reading classes at my elementary school consisted of reading one-paragraph selections and then answering inane multiple choice questions. Then the mother of one of my classmates started the Junior Great Books Club and the teacher tapped a handful of lucky students to participate. Escape! Hoo-ray! Instead of reading multiple-choice questions, we got to read interesting books and sit around a table talking about them. We read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Hawthorne’s Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, the stories of Mole and Rat and Toad from The Wind in the Willows — and finished the year with the wonderful Treasure Island.

I remember the discovery that struck me the most vividly upon that first reading was the disconnect between surface impressions and character. Long John Silver was such a charming fellow — until the shock of the apple-barrel chapter turned all my assumptions upside-down. This charming fellow was really a cold-blooded monster plotting to murder Jim and all his friends. I was outraged! And Captain Smollett was such a pessimistic old grouch — until he stood up to Long John in a heroic defiance at the fort. This grouch was a rock of strength, and I stood up and cheered when he told off Long John. Ben Gunn was a ridiculous tattered half-wit — until he outsmarted everyone by finding the treasure first. This half-wit was clever enough to play ghost and trick the pirates long enough for help to arrive. I was impressed. When I was 12 years old, all of this burst upon me as a fresh new thought, something I learned all on my own while reading a book — that people were more difficult to understand than a quick first glance suggested.

Reading it now, with bifocals and a head of gray hair, I’m aware of moral ambiguities that I never recognized as a child. Captain Smollet’s heroic defiance of Silver is still as stirring as ever, but reflecting on the bloody outcome, I wonder whether it would have been wiser to use more diplomacy. Doctor Livesey wheels and deals with Silver while double-crossing him, which isn’t strictly honorable, yet probably saved lives. Silver himself changes sides so often that nobody on either side can trust him anymore. Silver has no loyalty, choosing whichever side will do him the most good. Yet his crookedness plays a part in saving Jim and his friends. The Doctor urges Jim to make a break for it over the stockade wall even though this flouting of his parole would be less than honorable and would leave Silver open to punishment by his crew. Jim himself deserts the fort and goes AWOL at a crucial moment, although his selfish flight sets in motion the chain of events which save the ship. This is a morally gray story in so many ways that escaped my attention at the age of 12, when Jim’s side were the good guys and the pirates were the bad guys and that was that. The three sick, marooned pirates in the final chapter, kneeling on the beach with outstretched hands, begging to be taken aboard the departing ship, strike my conscience now in a way they never did then.

But despite these more sober thoughts, the book’s effervescent youthful high spirits still come to me like cool water when I’m thirsty for refreshment. Even after all these years, the sheer confidence of Stevenson’s inventiveness still carries me away. Even though I know the plot by heart and can almost quote much of the dialogue, I still remain delighted at the sureness of the story’s spinning, the zest of the telling. If this is just a boys and girls adventure book, which it admittedly is, it’s still arguably the best one ever written. In the world Stevenson invented, chased by pirates that I know are never going to catch me, I’m always set free for a few hours from whatever’s weighing me down.