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Saturday, April 02, 2016

Treasure Island

I remember having as a kid an illustrated edition of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, but I don't know that I ever read beyond the first few pages. But certainly we all know aspects of it, even if we haven't read it, because Stevenson basically created the kind of pirate lore that we are accustomed today, such as treasure maps, one-legged buccaneers, and parrots on the shoulder.

I was looking for a "classic" novel to teach my sixth-graders this year, and since the librarian at my school had been doing a pirate theme in her lessons, I chose Treasure Island. It is, to be sure, a classic, and it will present a challenge to them, not so much for the story, which is fairly simple to follow, but for the vocabulary, which has many words they will be unfamiliar with. Many words, especially seafaring vernacular, had me stumped. I think the first thing I'll have to do is go over the parts of a ship. What's a forecastle again?

The book was published in 1883, after being serialized. Stevenson wrote it as a boy's adventure story (there is only one female character, briefly) and was inspired to do so after creating a map with his stepson. I have always been fascinated by islands, and I've drawn a few maps myself, which is a fun thing to do. This, along with making a boy the central character, makes Treasure Island an exciting tale for youngsters.

The story finds young Jim Hawkins, who lives with his parents in the Admiral Benbow Inn. A man by the name of Billy Bones rents a room, telling Jim to keep a lookout for a one-legged seafarer. Bones has a sea chest that he says many would be interested in. Later, a blind man named Pew comes by and terrifies Jim.

Bones dies and Jim takes the contents of his chest to the local doctor, Livesey. They find a map and determine it leads to treasure. Squire Trelawney, a local official, hires a boat, with Captain Smollett at the helm. Trelawney has hired a cook--Long John Silver.

Of course Silver is a pirate in disguise, and Jim learns of the plot. There will be a battle between good guys and bad guys, and Jim will be put in some tight spots (he will even kill a man), while Silver will straddle the line between good and bad. In many ways, Treasure Island reminds me of other boys' stories, like the Hardy Boys and the like, although written with much more sophistication.

Pirate tales were very popular for a long time, and went out of fashion until revived by Pirates of the Caribbean (although I don't know if that inspired kids to wear tri-corner hats and brandish swords, like I did when I was a kid). As we know from J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, pirates are a symbol of evil, but also of freedom, like Western outlaws or marauding knights. My time spent on boats in the open sea is very limited, but there is an allure to it that makes stories like these very romantic.

Treasure Island has all of the pirate tropes--the talking parrot (the last words of the book belong to him--"Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"), the treasure map (in actuality, there has never been found a genuine treasure map used by pirates), the Jolly Roger, and phrases like "Shiver me timbers."

I never know how my kids will respond to a book, and after reading it this week I can see that there will be many hurdles. It will be a good chance for them to practise determining meaning from context. Today's kids are a different species then when I was a kid; their attention spans are very short, and if it isn't on a screen, it doesn't interest them. But some kids are reachable. Maybe a pirate tale will do it.

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