Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the past few months I’ve been reading books I should have read decades ago. Some of these were books for adults. Others were for younger readers. Kidnapped (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the so-called boyhood books I’ve recently read.

Kidnapped is constant motion. By motion understand travel. The narrator from the first page is on his way somewhere, first to find his uncle who he believes will give him work, then aboard the vessel that kidnaps him, then waylaid on a barren island, then fleeing pursuers through moor and forest. Whatever one might say of the book, its motion-wise attitude prevents dullness. Its main character Robert Balfour is a seventeen-year-old boy who goes to find his fortune after his father dies. He never seems quite that young, and though he does learn certain skills in the course of his adventures—fighting with swords, for example—he’s not that much different when the novel ends than he was when it began. I suppose his main lesson in this narrative is friendship. Balfour makes a friend in a Scotsman named Alan Breck Stewart who helps him escape the island, and who remains true to him throughout the rest of the book, even when Balfour mistrusts and insults him. These two men grow to like each other so much, constantly professing their love for one another, that we’re tempted to see a 20th-century dimension in their friendship that is not really there.

Try as I might in thinking about this book, I cannot conclude anything other than the fact that it is well done, full of excitement and interesting characters, and eminently shallow. There’s not much here beyond the adventure itself and the evocation of 18th century Scottish nationalism and clan conflicts . It’s fun, it’s readable, but there’s little to it. Maybe this is what a child’s book should be.

There is a historical basis for some of the events and people in the novel. The murder for which Balfour and Breck are suspects was modeled on an actual murder. The main character’s kidnapping and ultimate rescue were inspired by a historical event. Alan Breck was an actual figure in 18th century Scottish history, as were a few other characters in the book.

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