Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thought I would continue with last month's experiment of posting a brief well, not review, exactly, but more meandering rumination on the book I'll be discussing with my book group shortly. One of the pitfalls of book groups is that the consensus opinion of something may not shift your point of view, but it may profoundly color your unfiltered reaction.

As for tonight's book, Kidnapped,the two members reactions that I've heard so far make me think this may be a tough sell. One said that she was maybe just not in the right mood for buccaneering--which means she's still pretty early in the story as buccaneering isn't really the focus of the book for long. Actually, I don't know if technically there is any real buccaneering going on, but that's because I realize that I don't really know what a buccaneer is...

Another member said he found it depressing. Depressing? I asked, because frankly that response surprised me. But he said that the number of traps and perils our hero David Balfour falls into are so unrelenting that he didn't understand why David didn't just give up and end it all at some point.

Well, it's a point of view, and frankly, it's the path that I might have considered strongly myself. But in a way, I think that this is because, unlike so many of our action adventure stories today, which probably sport at least the same number of dangers, this book makes the costs seem physically, emotionally and spiritually real.

There are two story structures that have come to mind a few times as I read this book. One is the fairy tale. Not in the sense that this is fantasy, but in following a fairytale motif. In the beginning, David leaves his home and sets out on the road, little knowing where he is going, but eager to see a bit more of the world now that his parents have died. He immediately comes across an old friend of the family, who not only gives him three gifts, a classic fairytale motif, but also a letter that he is to carry somewhere to seek his fortune. He is told that he not the lowly swineherd (figuratively) that he thought he was at all, but in fact a member of a great house.

It's interesting to me, having reached the end of the book (and I promise to give nothing away that's worth saving, unlike Stevenson himself, who apparently gave away several major plot points in the subtitle) it is all really a simple trajectory of a young man seeking his rightful portion and how that all resolves. But there is a sense that the detour that his adventures represent also test his worthiness to be the recipient of that fortune. An inherited right also becomes an earned right, and the ordeals he goes through are again of a sort of mythic nature to reveal the one true king or whatever.

I've also kept thinking that this would make a great computer game. Not like one of those multiplayer games, but something simpler, like Pokemon on Gameboy, which, due to my nephew's childhood is the only one I really know anything about. You would by default be David Balfour and each level would be the next level he has to endure. It might even be good for literacy, as Kidnappedthe book could be a kind of cheat sheet for Kidnapped the game.

Of course these structures leave so much out. You could play the game and even learn to master it quickly and still not have the experience that we have of being with David Balfour as he leaves 'the comfort zone' and sets off on ever widening and ever more difficult adventures.

The thing that you could not hope to replicate in a computer game is his friendship with Alan Breck Stewart. It's interesting that Stevenson chose this historical person to befriend his entirely fictional David. And it is so interesting to watch what begins as relationship of braggadocio on Alan's part and bemusement on David's turn into something much more real and lasting.

I think what my friend got wrong in finding it so depressing,and what I too get wrong in thinking about it as a game, is that we're seeing this as just an endless series of ordeals, to no real purpose. But the ordeals reveal the character of the two men to each other, which binds them to each other in a real and not merely 'code of honor' sort of stylized way. The point of the book is not really the rightful inheritance at all, and because of that it has a curiously anti-climactic ending, which is apt, but not conventional.

Well, headed out now to see what other reactions there were. And will report on them if they're interesting.

Thanks to Adrian McKinty for suggesting this reread. The truth is, I never really care what the others think of the books I recommend us trying. It's just an incentive for me to get around to them myself.


  1. Exactly. Its a book about friendship. Something very rare in ahy time. Friendship, honour, humour - its a book about virtue, not necessarily rewarded but certainly explored.

    And to your mates, well I'd just say I'm sorry if you dont like Kidnapped then you're just not as deep as I thought you were.

  2. Actually, it turns out that many of them very much did like Kidnapped. The two who told me beforehand were apparently red herrings. It was actually pretty great. We did the usual catching up thing, because it's a social club as much as a book group at this point, but a pretty good discussion of the book ensued. The one person who hadn't finished did bring her copy of the N.C. Wyatt illustrated edition which was gorgeous, although not my own imagining of either Davie or Alan at all. And she brought her biography of Fannie Stephenson, R.L.'s wife, which was pretty interesting just in itself.

    It was pretty interesting to see how people read it. One friend who loved it had been taking a course on moral philosophy of some sort and she found David to be moralistic and took against him. But I took up for him, saying that, yes, he had a moralistic background, but that he alone seemed to be able to ride the line of moral complexity that was Scotland at that time.

    It was interesting how much people seemed to relate the clan culture of Scotland to the tribal culture of Afghanistan, which seems apt, but which I never thought of. There was a 'for' and 'agin' it. I mean that there was a viewpoint expressed that said that the limited viewpoint of clan or tribal culture was blessed to be overridden by the concept of universal law, as well as a viewpoint that saw it as colonization.

    I did express the friendship theme, but as often happens, it was a moment in a varied discussion.

    Anyway, I think on balance most were happy to have read it, so I will thank you for the suggestion in their place.

    Next up? Innocents Abroad, which was also my suggestion, although apparently the earliest version of the group read it in the pre-me days. Should be fun. After that, I am more than ready for someone else to take on the onus of selection.

  3. You two may talk me into reading "Kidnapped," just as Alan Moore got me to buy "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" not long ago. It's somewhere not far from the top of my TR list.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Peter, I think it would be great if either or both of us were influential in that way. If it helps, there is a famous real life unsolved murder at the heart of it. Some people claim it is solved, but it's the kind of thing that I would think would always be the subject of speculation.

  5. Dover publishes some ultracheap editions of Stevenson and Jules Verne. Maybe they do a "Kidnapped." And there is always my trusty library.

  6. Seana

    Well you cant go wrong with Innocents Abroad. Hilarity will ensue. I remember the quarantine Athenian episode very well.

    Also I believe he mentions Jerusalems endemic stray cat population which was still a sad mess when I was there.

  7. I think it was Peter who got me interested in Innocents Abroad with this post about the idea of 'the select'.

  8. Thanks to this discusscion, I've just picked up and read my copy of the other book Stevenson wrote around the same time he wrote Kidnapped -- The Strane Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

    The opening chapter's introduction of Utterson is superb. What a character sketch. Stevenson knew how to hook a reader.