Completed: Treasure Island

First, a reminder to all participants in the Classic Children’s Literature event: don’t forget to link your posts up on the main page so we can all find them! Business over…

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson
1883, Scotland
Treasure Island Title Page

More than any previous year, this January’s children’s classics reading have been for me about reading books I’ve long been meaning to get to. When I was browsing my shelves looking for the next thing, I came across “my” copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It has been in the family a long time–perhaps as many as one hundred years–having passed from my great-uncle to his younger sister–my grandma, to my mom and now me (somehow–I’m actually not sure why it’s on my shelves and not my brother’s but I suspect linear feet available had something to do with it).

I don’t really know how well Treasure Island is generally known. It seems fairly. There was a Muppet version after all. But the actual book–I don’t know? I perhaps wonder this because even though I should know the story–I distinctly remember my mom reading it to my younger brother and I on our first beach vacation when we were quite little (third grade and kindergarten)–how little did I recall!

I was surprised at how much time Stevenson spends in England, setting up the story with the adventure of the obtaining of the treasure map. And it is proof right from the start that this is a true adventure novel–although so much time (the whole of Part I) is spent in England, the pages turn just as fast as during the later adventures on Treasure Island itself. I was also slightly surprised to find how little I remembered of the island-side adventures. They spent so much time on land! I didn’t remember that. Nor did I remember how much time Jim Hawkins, the primary narrator and the boy (I’m guessing early teens) who first obtains the treasure map from the chest of a dead seaman (pirate!) who stayed at his father’s inn, is away from his friends, the financier Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey.

But what really struck me most coming away from this is a sense of moral ambiguity to the novel. True enough, the pirates’ self-defeat thanks in no small part to copious quantities of rum could seemingly provide an example for the temperance society, and the failure of their dastardly plot could be a moral in and of itself. (Good guys win, bad guys lose.) But there’s the sly Long John Silver–surely the most memorable character of the lot–who not only moves amongst sides as the wind blows, but also manages his own survival at the end. His motivations are plain enough, but his outcome is not the stuff of children’s lessons. This is an adventure story, not a morality tale.

More interestingly to me though, is the storyline centered on Jim Hawkins. He is always on the side of the loyal crew, so there is no ambiguity there, but he is a reckless, impulsive boy. He abandons duty and his friends, not once but twice, and though he risks his life both times–and nearly dies twice on the second adventure–because his actions ultimately prove helpful to the safety of his friends he is not reprimanded but rather rises in their esteem. It is as if to say obedience is not as important as the ultimate outcome. In contrast, I am more accustomed to the story where disobedience (of a good or moral instruction, not of a bad instruction) leads to its own punishment, usually some tragic occurrence that might otherwise have been prevented had the child/youth done as they were told. Although I suppose it could be argued that some tragedy does result from Hawkins’s second departure, because it ultimately works for the benefit of the loyal crew, its effect is mitigated.

As an adventure it is quite fun–well paced, with twists and turns aplenty. It seems it would be a fun film. I should search out one of the adaptations–any recommendations?

Completed: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin
translated from French

Tintin3-4I have had too much fun these past few months revisiting a series I first read when I was 10 or 11. At that time my brother had stumbled across the series in the library and I didn’t hesitate to borrow them from him, even if they bordered rather close to picture books, albeit longer and more narratively complex. When a movie version adapting several of the stories made its appearance last winter, a wave of nostalgia prompted me to request every single adventure from the library and embark on my own adventure.

Apparently, Tintin isn’t as well known in the US as he is in other countries (although perhaps the movie has changed that?), although I’m not sure why American children shouldn’t enjoy his adventures as much as others. Perhaps we have too many other distractions to entertain us? Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the stories, the hero is boy-reporter Tintin, always accompanied by his white fox terrier, known as Snowy in the English translations (Milou in the original), who finds himself on a series of adventures all over the world. Tintin was introduced in 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly children’s supplement to the Belgium paper Le Vingtième Siècle, and his popularity soon led to a series of books. Over the years, other regular characters make their appearances, including detectives Thompson and Thomson, Captain Haddock, and Professor Calculus, all of whom find themselves involved, wittingly or un-, in a number of Tintin’s adventures.

TintinSovFor this rereading I made a particular effort to read the titles in the order they were created, excepting The Adventures of Tintin Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième” In the Land of the Soviets, which I was unable to acquire until later in my reading. For the most part, the stories could be read in any order (although some later stories make reference to earlier adventures), but by reading them in the order they were written, it allowed me to see how Hergé’s skill as a story teller developed over time. The earliest titles were more slapstick and stereotyped, in the manner of their era. The first title I read in particular, Tintin in America, seemed to suggest that Hergé’s knowledge of the U.S. in general and Native Americans in particular came only via cinematic westerns. Unfortunately, I don’t know that even American writers of the 1930s would have done any better in their portrayal of Native Americans; after all those westerns came from Hollywood studios. It’s just a bit jarring to read it now. On the other hand, Hergé used the same broad strokes for white Americans, so perhaps he was just equal-opportunity stereotyping. It should also be noted that the second title in the series, Tintin in the Congo, isn’t available in the U.S. due to concerns over its portrayal of the Congolese and its portrayal of big-game hunting. (According to the Wikipedia article, Hergé himself would later regret these portrayals.) Later titles, on the other hand, seemed more nuanced and better researched, and the story-lines themselves grew more complex. Actually, in this sense reading In the Land of the Soviets out of order really brought this point home as it is much simpler than the later works. It is also the only story which didn’t make the transition from black-and-white to color.

Something else I noticed this time that I don’t recall paying attention to before was the shortage of female characters. Outside of occasional appearances by “Milanese Nightingale” Bianca Castafiore, there are very few named female characters and they have almost no bearing on the plot. Perhaps this indicates that the Tintin adventures were meant for boys, perhaps it just represents a different era. Regardless, it didn’t spoil my amusement with the stories, it was just something I noticed this time around. (Although, given my childhood love for stories with strong female characters, I’m surprised I didn’t notice before.)

One of the fun things about reading good children’s books or watching good children’s movies as an adult is finding things that you wouldn’t notice as a child. Here, for instance, there were times when characters spoke in another language that hadn’t been translated into English. While I still can’t say if they were all accurate or real languages, this time around I could understand Bianca’s Italian. Then there’s Captain Haddock’s varied vocabulary: no doubt meant to convey the idea of a sailor’s salty language while staying kid-safe, his expressions of “gibbering,” “iconoclast,” “cercopithecus,” and “anacoluthon” provided me much amusement. He knows words my spell-check doesn’t know!

Tintin_and_SnowyI don’t think I can pick an absolute favorite Tintin story. My least favorite were the paired Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, which were less adventure story (especially the first) and more episodic. The group that were included in volumes 3 and 4 of the collections I read were probably some of my favorite, in part because of the introduction of the drunken, irrepressible Captain Haddock and the half-deaf mad-genius Professor Calculus. Somehow, the Tintin stories don’t feel right without these two along for the ride. But all-in-all, it was fun to revisit these stories from childhood, including some that were new to me (I had not previously read In the Land of the Soviets, nor some of the later volumes).

Tintin Books Read:

  1. The Adventures of Tintin Reporter for “Le Petit Vingtième” In the Land of the Soviets – Hergé (1929-30, Belgium)
  2. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 1 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Tintin in America (1931-32, 1945)
    2. Cigars of the Pharaoh (1932-34, 1955)
    3. The Blue Lotus (1934-35, 1946)
  3. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 2– Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Broken Ear (1935-37, 1943)
    2. The Black Island (1937-38, 1943)
    3. King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1938-39, 1947)
  4. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 3 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Crab with the Golden Claws (1940-41, 1943)
    2. The Shooting Star (1941-42, 1942)
    3. The Secret of the Unicorn (1942-43, 1943)
  5. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 4 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943, 1944)
    2. The Seven Crystal Balls (1943-46, 1948)
    3. Prisoners of the Sun (1946-48, 1949)
  6. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 5 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. Land of Black Gold (1948–1950, 1950)
    2. Destination Moon (1950–1953, 1953)
    3. Explorers on the Moon (1950–1953, 1954)
  7. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 6 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Calculus Affair (1954-56, 1956)
    2. The Red Sea Sharks (1956-58, 1958)
    3. Tintin in Tibet (1958-59, 1960)
  8. The Adventures of Tintin, Volume 7 – Hergé (Belgium)
    1. The Castafiore Emerald (1961-62, 1963)
    2. Flight 714 (1966-67, 1968)
    3. Tintin and the Picaros (1975-76, 1976)

Completed: The Sign of Four

Well, it’s been a while, but I’ve finally completed another book. More specifically, I finally completed the second of two novellas included in the first volume of my dad’s Sherlock Holmes set. I read A Study in Scarlet back in January, and I don’t think it was really a good time for me and mysteries, as I was just sort of “meh” about it. (Of course, the long, drawn-out section in Utah doesn’t help its case.) The Sign of Four on the other hand was much more to my liking. Although I do seem to be on a bit of a mystery kick at the moment, I think in this instance the real selling point is that The Sign of Four is an adventure story. And I love adventure stories.

Yes, there is a mystery, although, as far as these go, it is pretty straightforward. Quite frankly, I was able to guess many of the points shortly before Holmes shared them with Watson. The mystery is not what makes The Sign of Four entertaining; it is the chase that follows. Holmes–and Watson–know the who, but they don’t know where the suspects are precisely. Nor do they know the why. The discovery of these points fill the latter half of the adventure.

And adventure it is. A murder. A chase–literally. A romance for Dr. Watson. Exotic locales. Locked Rooms. Dark countryside. Lost treasure. In an improvement from A Study in Scarlet, the “why” isn’t told by a third person omniscient narrator, but included more organically in the story, through the narration of some of those involved. All in all, I found this a much more entertaining story than its predecessor.

But. It seems unavoidable in Victorian-era novels, at least by British authors, that some sort of racial or class prejudice sneaks in, in this instance an apparent stereotyping of a native of the Andaman Islands. On the one hand, I intellectually acknowledge that these attitudes were characteristic of the time, that many honestly believed that their culture, if not their race, were superior to those of “uncivilized” peoples. Not to mention, an unpredictable “savage” is more entertaining than a run-of-the-mill criminal. (Also, interestingly, when I looked up the Andaman Islands on Wikipedia, the article indicated that some of the native peoples had not had friendly contact with outside groups until the 1990s: I can certainly see where a violence-first defensive strategy might seem “savage” to a 19th century outsider.) On the other hand, there’s the 21st century part of me that puts up warning signs whenever I come across such examples of past prejudices. At the very least, any contemporary adaptation of the book into movie form (and I think it would be very adaptable–in fact it has been several times already) would probably need to modify one of the characters to avoid unwanted controversy.

That aside, I’ve very much looking forward to reading the rest of the Holmes stories and novels. I’m especially looking forward to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as I’ve read about Irene Adler, but never the story she is featured in! I’m also thinking I would like to go back even further to the oldest detective stories (Poe and Collins, as best I can determine). Fortunately, any of the above will fit right in with the R.I.P. Challenge, and either Poe or Collins certainly feels seasonal.