Treasure Island – the Sequel!

Andrew Motion, former poet laureate, is writing a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story. Coincidentally, I just finished reading the book again, for the first time since I was a child. There it was on the Red Cross charity bookshelf, and I could not resist the lure of those well-remembered characters.Reading it afresh was an eye-opener. It’s brilliantly told with strong, well-drawn characters, a snappy pace, and a nice salting of sailing jargon for verisimilitude (it’s not necessary to understand what it means). On one level I devoured it like a child, right there with Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesy, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollet, fighting the dastardly pirates led by the treacherous Long John Silver.

On another level there were some troubling questions. The servility shown to the Squire didn’t sit well, even if he was a bluff, brave, and hearty fellow, though none too bright. Then there’s the question of who the treasure belongs to. It didn’t belong to the pirates who stole it, nor to the colonial powers who plundered it from the Americas. It certainly didn’t belong to the Squire’s party, though he naturally assumes he has more right to it than the pirates. Stevenson portrays them as decent and law-abiding people, with the privilege of punishing the pirates by death.

The pirates get the shitty end of the stick. Almost all of them are drunken, greedy murderers. The exception is John Silver, a born politician, affable, persuasive, and as ready as any of his mates to stick the knife in when necessary. Born into the right class, Silver could have become prime minister.

The contrast between the two groups is most pointed in their respective group dynamics. The Squire’s party is held together by tradition, respect for hereditary authority, and a sense of loyalty towards the status quo. Only Captain Smollett, by virtue of his particular expertise, is allowed to express dissenting opinions.

The pirates, on the other hand, are a rough and ready democracy. They elect their captains by a simple majority and depose them just as easily. You might call it conducting a performance review with extreme prejudice. Pirate captains have to fight for their positions. All of which makes John Silver a natural for the job. Stevenson obviously had soft spot for his creation, allowing him to escape with booty at the end.

So while I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure story (couldn’t put it down), it was tempered by all the liberal, progressive ideas I’ve imbibed as an adult. A strange mixture.

Andrew Motion’s sequel involves Jim Hawkin’s son and John Silver’s daughter in a search for the rest of the treasure. I’m looking forward to it.

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