Book Review: Treasure Island

Book Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

In the year of grace 17–, the Admiral Benbow was a quiet seaside inn run by the Hawkins family. Its relative isolation and excellent view of the surrounding waters recommended the place to a disreputable-looking sailor who preferred to be called “captain” and nothing else. The captain wants no visitors, and asks the son of the innkeeper, Jim Hawkins, to keep an eye out for nautical travelers in the vicinity, particularly any one-legged seamen, as that one was particularly dangerous. In the end, it’s a race between Billy Bones’ old crew (no captain he, but only first mate) and his alcoholism to kill him first. However, it’s Jim Hawkins who ends up with the real prize, a map to Treasure Island!

Treasure Island

This classic adventure novel was written in 1881 while Robert Louis Stevenson was in Switzerland for his health and originally serialized in Young Folks magazine under the title The Sea-Cook, before being published in the form we know today in 1883. It’s the pirate story that originated or popularized most of the genre bits we think of when we think of pirates, such as the pirate parrot. The book was so influential that when J.M. Barrie wanted Peter Pan‘s villain to seem impressive, he wrote that even Long John Silver was afraid of Captain Hook.

Jim Hawkins’ age is never specifically mentioned, he seems to be in his early teens, old enough to work around the inn and later as a cabin boy, but much less big or strong than a grown man. His father dies early on of natural causes, and the last we see of his mother is just before the voyage to Treasure Island begins. (We do, however, get a great moment of characterization for her as she has no hesitation about raiding the proverbial dead man’s chest for the back rent Billy Bones owes the inn. But not a penny more, even though doing the arithmetic puts her life in even more danger.) This is, after all, very much a boys’ adventure story. Jim’s boyish whims and tendency to wander off on his own prove vital to the survival of the treasure hunters. First, he discovers the mutiny plot, then the existence of Ben Gunn (the one man on the island who can help them) and finally denies the mutineers their ship.

Squire Trelawney is an ass at the beginning of the book, blabbing the treasure hunt all over town after being specifically warned not to. There’s also a couple of lines where he comes off sexist and/or racist, but that may be period-appropriate. The squire owns up to his stupidity when the consequences become clear to him, and starts pulling his weight for the rest of the adventure.

Doctor Livesey is more intelligent, and a man of honor, but has a tendency to be scolding and self-righteous, as well as a heavy smoker. Captain Smollett is a stern master of the good ship Hispaniola, and wise in the ways of the sea, but is overridden by Squire Trelawney on the matter of some of the crew hired, and then badly injured in a battle, so can only give advice from then on.

And on the other side, we have Long John Silver, cunning, ruthless and much-feared pirate quartermaster and sea-cook. But you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His appearance is that of a jolly one-legged innkeeper, which is what he’s doing in Bristol when Jim meets him. Unlike most of Captain Flint’s old crew, Mr. Silver saved his booty and invested wisely. Only the lure of the much greater treasure buried on Treasure Island makes him risk the danger of being caught. And to be perfectly honest, his original plan would have worked if it were not for Jim Hawkins and Ben Gunn being in the wrong place at the right time.

Mr. Silver also has a well-honed sense of self-preservation, switching sides whenever it’s convenient for him. On the other hand, Long John is a faithful and loving husband who trusts his wife implicitly. (And is probably less racist than many other Englishmen.) A well-spoken villain with some good qualities, he’s one of the main ingredients that makes the book work.

The ending is a bit abrupt, with a quick overview of what became of several of the characters–we know Jim survives, and presumably spent some of his money on a good education as he’s a skilled writer…but he still has screaming nightmares about the island and what happened there.

Highly recommended to adventure lovers who have somehow never read this book before. Younger readers may need help with some antiquated vocabulary, and there are quite a few violent deaths so parents should consider that before reading it as a bedtime story.

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,”  It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989.  In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.

Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo.  The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy.  The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit.  Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.

A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques.  Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.

Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests.  Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.

This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them.  There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.

Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man.  Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo.  It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life.  Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.

There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time.  Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.

The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion.  It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.

Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

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