Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

How do you guys like the rebrand, so far? I’ve done another mini one this week, with changing the names of my posts and sprucing up my pages. It feels so good to get some maintenance done, make my site even cleaner and more like how I want it to be. Very spring-y, I feel.

But you’re not here to discuss my website maintenance, so I’ll move on. You might remember my 12 Months 12 Books Challenge that I’m doing with my friend, and if you read last month’s post on the topic, you’ll know that I chose Treasure Island for March.

Treasure Island is a classic for a reason. It has so much: high seas adventure, salty sailor talk, sailing ship vocabulary, a desert island, buried treasure, even a talking parrot. SO MANY pirate story tropes come from this book, the creativity boggles the mind. You all know Long John Silver already, the sea cook with the peg leg who is charismatic, charming, and treacherous. There’s also the good doctor, the hot-headed country squire, and the innocent widowed-innkeeper’s-son-turned-cabin-boy-in-search-of-adventure, Jim Hawkins.

Jim is wide-eyed and naive at the start of the story, frightened by the drunken songs of a man he’s sure is a pirate. When the old sea dog is threatened by mysterious other sailors to the point of his own death, Jim Hawkins and his mother search the body for payment of all the owes to the inn, and find a treasure map, yes, marked all over with red x’s. This book has it all, y’all.

And the names, my god. Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver and his parrot, Captain Flint. Black Dog, Ben Gunn. The Island has names like Spyglass Hill, Mizzenmast Hill, Haulbowline Head, and Skeleton Island. If you don’t feel your lungs fill with that salty breeze and feel the mist on your face, I don’t know what to do for you.

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Incidentally, the show Black Sails is about Captain Flint, the Walrus (his ship), and John Silver’s backstory.

There’s also a very strong moral here. In an extension of good versus evil, there is Christian morality versus agnostic criminality. Jim Hawkins, Doctor Livesy, Squire Trelawney, and Ben Gunn (the pirate marooned on the island by the real Captain Flint three years previous, and turned holy man during his isolation) all quite scripture when they feel the need to make a point. The pirates occasionally do as well, but usually misquote it and are corrected by Silver, who is of dubious character. I mean, he’s definitely a Bad Guy, but you can’t help but like him.

It’s also a coming-of-age story in a lot of ways. Jim starts off very young and leaves his sobbing mother with a dead body and pirates circling like sharks to go look for treasure. But he’s the one who accidentally discovers the mutiny plot, and all along, he’s the one who figures out how to get them out of whatever bind they’re in. He even steals the ship at one point, by defending himself against a full-power pirate and actually killing the guys. He climbs the mast to get higher ground, assessing it to be (my favourite phrase in a book so far) ‘of goodish bigness.’ No joke, that’s a real line. So is, ‘to make assurance surer.’

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No joke. I was so amused I put it on Instagram.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that modern literary ‘rules’ are rubbish (and I’ll discuss them in a post very soon). By those standards, the classics would never have been published and we as a culture would be out something significant.

This is a really fun book. It was originally intended as a quick summer read for boys, and it really does feel that way. It has the pacing and action (and a slight moral) to quicken the pulse and set the imagination flying. The chapters are a pretty uniform 6 pages each, which I appreciate because I can pace it or binge it as my schedule permits. So it’s a fun little read, especially if you’re someplace warm and sunny, or at the beach or a cruise. Get yourself the Kindle version (here) that won’t take up space in your carry-on.

Now, I like to get the Barnes and Noble Classics because the have discussion questions at the back, which are fun for me.

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Questions

1) What is an adventure? What qualifies Treasure Island as an adventure novel? The colourful characters?

I think the characters are fun, but the definition of an adventure, for me, is the pacing and the excitement of the story, as well as the realness of the setting. I want to feel like I can see the pine trees around Spyglass Hill, I want to feel the wind whipping my hair, I want to hear the creaking of the sails. But I also want to root for Jim when he’s climbing the mast to get away from Israel Hands, I want to be surprised when he goes back to the stockade expecting to see the doctor and the squire, but instead gets ambushed by John Silver and his gang of cutthroats. It’s the twists and turns, the bravery and daring, the siege of the stockade. The short moments of quiet between fast paced, high drama scenes. That’s an adventure to me. It has to be way outside the ordinary. Colourful characters help, but it’s the pace and drama for me.

2) Is this a story just for boys or young-at-heart men? What is there in this novel for girls or grown women?

At the heart of feminism is the truth that men and women are equal. Stevenson intended this book to be for boys and purposefully only has two women (Jim’s mother and VERY briefly, John Silver’s wife). It is interesting to note that he could have made Mrs Hawkin’s weak, as she was recently widowed, but she actually had a few moments of bravery in her short time, and was acknowledged as such by the ‘stronger’ men.

Also, back to my feminism soapbox, women don’t NEED women characters to be able to enjoy a story, just as men shouldn’t need a male lead to enjoy a story. It’s not like we’re so fragile that a story has to be about us to be able to relate. And there were female pirates, and there are female sailors. At the heart of it, this book is a high seas adventure, it doesn’t centre around maleness. Women can enjoy a good old-fashioned wise-crackin’ sailor with the boys. It doesn’t have to be a gender issue.

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#feminism

That said, in 2018, representation is becoming more and more important. Women are tired of being marginalised. People of colour are tired of being marginalised. People with disabilities or mental illnesses are tired of being marginalised. The world is ready for a mixed-race, genderfluid, bipolar sailor in a wheelchair as a main character (no quirky sidekick, here). I mean, ships have gangplanks–they’re totally wheelchair accessible.

Ok, hopping off my soapbox.

3) Can a search for treasure be taken as a metaphor for other kinds of quests? Is it a metaphor for human life itself? If so, what is the effect of Stevenson’s giving his treasure a history of crime, bloodshed, and intrigue? Is there something wrong or unclean about that which we seek? Is there a comment on human aspirations in how little the treasure seems to be worth once it is found? Is that the case in real life?

As I was reading, I actually thought the treasure was a metaphor for salvation, which was pretty common. The doctor, the squire, and Jim were looking for it, but mostly as a hobby. Like, they wanted it, but they weren’t willing to kill and maim for it. The pirates, who murdered with abandon, cut all kinds of corners looking for it, but when they did come across the spot, the crates were empty. Silver was taken captive by our heroes, three men were left marooned, and the rest died in the search.

And who found it? Ben Gunn, the pirate-turned-zealot who was punished for his crimes. He then shares the wealth with the three mains, spends all of his money in three weeks, is back to begging, BUT is the finest singer in church every Sunday and seems generally to be the better for his experience. So good. He got his happily-ever-after, in a weird way.

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I LOVE a book that opens with a map!

4) Piracy can be taken as a metaphor–say, for business or for imperialism. Was it Stevenson’s intention to comment on such activities? Or are we reading too much into the novel when we see piracy and treasure as parallels to occurrences in our daily lives? If so, if there’s no connection at all, how do you explain the enduring relevance of Treasure Island’ improbable adventure story for all types of readers?

Oh dude, I think you’re reading too much into it. It’s a book for kids. I’m not saying that kids CAN’T analyse, but that they’re not going to want to when they just want a fun adventure. The story is the point, not the message, that’s why it’s so subtle. This sounds like an adult trying to justify why they’re still reading a kid’s book 170 years later.

You have to remember that pirate stories were THE RAGE back then. This was a way of opening the genre to kids so they could play too (and like they did at the time, reminding them to be good Christians along the way. Even fiction was a teachable moment). It’s just a fun story. I’m sure there are themes and metaphors, but that’s not why it’s been successful.

It’s fun as hell, the characters are well-rounded, John Silver is a gem, Jim Hawkins has a great character arc, the names are incredible, and yeah, maybe there’s a little bit of a lesson to keep you on the straight and narrow. I recommend it immensely–pick it up here.

Also, Doctor Livesy is the sassiest bastard ever, and I think I’m in love.

~~~~

May’s book challenge is, ‘a book you should have read in school, but didn’t.’ Now, I was in College Prep and AP classes in high school, so we did read a lot of the classics. However, there were a few I missed out on. I recall Brave New World was big in the class I TA-ed for, also Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I gotta be honest, none of those interest me, at all. I’m more of a fantasy/history kind of girl, and I’m not big on social commentary apocalyptic futurism. So what do you guys think? Knowing what you know about me, what classic you read in high school would you recommend for me?

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