By Robert Louis Stevenson
As a memoirist primarily, I didn’t imagine that my first review would be of a novel. In delving into the etymology of the term ‘pieces of eight’ for a personal essay I was writing, I became glued to the audio version of Treasure Island, an adventure presumably intended for children.
It is said that stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. For me this point is debatable. However, Treasure Island is both. The plot is riveting, while the characters are deftly drawn archetypes of personalities we might recognise from our modern lives, though more colourfully depicted by Stevenson, and supported by the band of wicked pirates who bring up the ‘Everyman’ rear.
Hobbling around on crutches myself of late, I may identify a little too strongly with the lead pirate, Long John Silver. The clank of his crutch on the ground, balanced with the soft but quick footfall of his one good leg, seems to make the earth shiver. The ‘clomp’ from his support stick used to thump through my dreams at night when I was a child.
As an adult, I appreciate the author’s portrait of this wily, enigmatic character who they call ‘Silver’. He displays the manipulative powers of one blessed with enough dramatic range to successfully exert control over people and many situations he finds himself in- en route to treasure.
Fifteen-year-old Jim Hawkins, whose coming-of-age story this is, matures quickly under the tutelage of the mercurial Silver, with whom he forms a symbiotic bond. ‘So you’ve changed sides again,’ cries Hawkins in exasperation as Silver makes a last minute manoeuvre to outwit both Jim’s well-meaning friends and his own band of buccaneers alike.
When we consider that the author also wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we better grasp his fascination with the darker forces of human nature, which bely what might seem a simple adventure plot.
I researched the term ‘pieces of eight’ for my story ‘The Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ as read on Vision Australia Radio. Originally I thought the phrase referred to the ill-gotten gains made by pirates – which would have suited the narrative build. But the term actually refers to eight-sided coins popularly traded in the mid-18th century Americas. My investigation of the phrase led me to re-discover Stevenson’s masterpiece. And what a find!
You can listen to ‘The Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ along with stories by my fellow Elwood Writers, here. And just for the record, I’m nearly ready to do away with the crutches and walk free. Maybe we can ‘come of age’ at any age.