Lifestyle Reader's Edge the June 2024 issue

Timeless Treasure

A review of Treasure Island
By Scott Naugle Posted on May 26, 2024

Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island remains a seafaring classic of Western literature. What’s more, all holes at Spyglass Hill Golf Course in Pebble Beach bear the name of a character or place from the book.

Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Penguin Random House

$10

Stevenson was a Scot and a rebel who grew his hair long and declared himself an atheist. He died from a stroke at age 44 in 1894. But before his death, the prolific author wrote well known novels such as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Black Arrow, and, of course, Treasure Island.

The tale of young Jim Hawkins and the map of buried island gold was serialized between 1881 and 1882 in the children’s magazine Young Folks, under the title Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola, before publication as a book in 1883.

The novel begins with a flashback to Hawkins’ recollection of his first meeting with the “old seaman” Billy Bones, who arrives at Hawkins’ father’s inn, The Admiral Benbow, “plodding to the inn door, his sea chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat.” The wizened sailor is quiet and mysterious: “He was a very silent man by custom. All day he hung around the cove, or upon the cliffs, with a brass telescope; all evening he sat in a corner of the parlour next the fire, and drank rum and water very strong.”

The first few paragraphs set up the adventure to come: a mysterious sea chest holding a map, suspicious characters, and a young man with insatiable curiosity. Stevenson’s descriptive writing style and mastery of detail in service of setting mood and tension foster a foreboding tone of danger and peril. “On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house, and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs,” Hawkins dreams. Soon, the wind will be shaking the timbers of the ship carrying him to Treasure Island.

The plot of Treasure Island is simple. Hawkins comes into possession of a map with a black X marking the location of buried treasure on a distant island. A wealthy doctor funds a crew and locates a vessel, the Hispaniola, and with Jim onboard as a cabin boy, they set sail. Treachery, drunkenness, secret alliances, and sword fights follow. Mutineers and fortune seekers plot and swashbuckle for tenuous control of the ship’s mission only to lose it again in short order to another raggedy faction.  The Jolly Roger, the black pirate flag, is hoisted on more than one occasion.

The names and colorful descriptions of the characters in Treasure Island add both backstory and humor. Here’s Long John Silver: “His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about on it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham.” There’s Black Dog, who confronts Billy Bones at The Admiral Benbow, missing two fingers from his left hand from their earlier fight.

Treasure Island is often labeled or referred to as a young adult novel. I was not sure if that meant I was not supposed to read it or that it would be too juvenile for me in writing style or plot. Perplexed, since I enjoyed the novel tremendously, I searched for a definition of young adult literature. The website Writer’s Edit says young adult fiction has three characteristics: the age of the protagonist, a central voice or narrator with an authentic voice ringing true to the young adult experience, and the way themes are explored and tailored to an inexperienced reader.

All three characteristics are present in Treasure Island. But the masterful Robert Louis Stevenson writes in, I submit, an age-defying style that will appeal to readers of all ages.

Art may be valued, perhaps, through its impact on culture and how we live. Treasure Island was written 150 years ago, yet we only need look as far as the closest busy interstate intersection for one of the hundreds of Long John Silver’s seafood restaurants across the United States. How many motels across the country are named after The Admiral Benbow Inn? “Shiver me timbers,” a pirate phrase used to register surprise or shock in the story, has entered the lexicon.

But Treasure Island is more than its cultural impact. It delivers an action-based, fun read, and you can talk about it for hours on your next golf outing at Spyglass Hill, one of the top 100 courses in the United States since 1969. 

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