Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pirates & The Caribbean Part II

For the third year in a row, I plan to spend my summer vacation in the Bahamas. It’s hard not to like the Caribbean with its perfect beaches and wonderful resorts, but as a fan of history, the Caribbean always makes me think about pirates. Maybe it was the Disneyland ride I used to adore long before Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, but for me it always comes back to those rum-swigging buccaneers. So two years ago I reviewed Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Pirate Latitudes, and this year I’m focusing on the most classic pirate story of all time: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The Coolest Treasure Island Cover I've Seen By Far!
After probably 30-some years, I re-read Treasure Island, this time with my eight-year-old daughter, and it was an interesting experience after half-a-lifetime of reading adventure tales. The first thing that struck me was how much dialect there is in this book. Half the time it was hard to understand what the heck Long John Silver and his pirate friends were saying to the poor, and much more well-spoken, protagonist Jim Hawkins. Here’s a good example from Mr. Silver’s mouth: “Not much worth to fight, you ain’t. P’r’aps you can understand King George’s English. I’m cap’n here by ‘lection.” I don’t know how I overlooked this as a kid, but it has far more dialect than I’m used to. Yet given that it’s a classic, that must have worked back in 1883, so I can’t be too critical.

Can you believe they named a fast-food place after this guy?
The story also contains less action than I’m used to from reading fiction written in the 20th and 21st centuries, but back in 1883, Treasure Island may have been that generation’s “Star Wars.” The plot is fairly straightforward. Young Jim Hawkins, who works with his mother at an English inn called the Admiral Benbow, meets a drunken old seaman named Billy Bones who is fearful of a mysterious one-legged man. After Billy dies, Jim discovers his old treasure map (with an “X” that marks the spot). He shows it to Dr. Livsey and Squire Trewlaney, a pair of gentlemen willing to take risks for the sake of adventure and a chest full of gold, and soon finds himself on a sea voyage to Skeleton Island. Unfortunately, the crew hired by Trewlaney – who seriously needs to work on his background checks – is comprised of former pirates who have been seeking the treasure for some time. Even worse, they are led by the one-legged man that Billy so feared: Long John Silver (“shiver my timbers!”). Naturally, a mutiny ensues, and before long, it’s up to young Jim to save the day.
Take that Israel Hands!
Almost every pirate cliché you can think of derived from this novel, including the peg-legged captain, the talking parrot, the map with a great big X, and “yo-ho and a bottle of rum!” No wonder it’s a classic. It did to pirates what Tolkien did to dwarves and elves. There were enough harrowing moments to keep me engaged, despite the awkward dialect and a penchant for “telling,” instead of “showing,” which seems to have been rampant in 19th century writing. There was more violence than I remembered, which made it less than ideal for my eight–year-old, but no one can fault Mr. Stevenson for that. I’m glad I re-read it, and I understand why it’s so famous, but I must say, I think I’d prefer a more recently crafted pirate tale. That said, it’s hard to be too hard on a classic.

Along with Pirate Latitudes, this makes a whopping two novels I’ve read about pirates and the Caribbean. If I go to the Bahamas next year, I’ll surely need one more, so any good recommendation will be much appreciated!


Bill said...

There was a mini-series on TV a couple of years ago based on this book that was pretty well done as I recall. As you say, many cliches come from this.

L. Marrick said...

You're right, there is a lot more telling (rather than showing) in a lot of classics. It can really make even the more exciting ones seem dry. Weird how using dialect isn't considered proper anymore, huh? In most cases, anyway. That seems to be a recent development. Even in college my professors taught how to do dialect. But now I hear it's a no-no? Trends are weird.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill - I hope they rerun that series. I think there have been other films based on the book as well. The story should translate into a pretty exciting drama on TV or film.

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie - thanks for the comment! I guess in the nineteenth century, they weren't competing with all those visual images like we are with TV and cinema. Also, they tended to write everything in first person so that it read more like a diary or a memoir. Even though this book is in first-person, when Stevenson needs to change POV, he just writes from the viewpoint of someone else -- in first person! This goes on for two or three chapters for the Doctor, and then we never get in his head again. Strange.

L. Marrick said...

Whoa, I didn't remember that! I like it, though. I like thinking of writing as a lawless land where there's a code that's more like "guidelines" than rules. (sticking with the pirate theme :)

Joseph Finley said...

Leslie, well said! I think it would help if I approach my current WIP more like a swashbuckler!