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Silver: Return to Treasure Island

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Since its 1883 publication, generations of young adults have fallen in love with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, its hero Jim Hawkins, and its anti-hero Long John Silver. Half a dozen prequels and perhaps a dozen sequels have been written, too, working to capture the magical spirit of eighteen-century pirates and their murderous hunt for treasure in an exotic Caribbean locale. The latest sequel is Silver:  Return to Treasure Island written by Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009 and a well-known British author with many other books to his credit. Given his marvelous imagination and his keen ear for literary cadences, Motion is an ideal candidate to take up where Stevenson left off.

His story of Silver begins with the next generation, when Jim Hawkins’ son and Long John Silver’s daughter join forces. Together, they return to Treasure Island to seek the remaining treasure their fathers left behind. “Natty and I thought we had sailed to Treasure Island to escape their [our fathers’] influence,” writes young Jim; “instead, we had found them waiting for us.” Metaphorically [in the heads and hearts of their offspring] and literally [in the actions of the still-petulant fellow pirates cast away on Treasure Island thirty years before], the elder Jim Hawkins and the wily Long John Silver dominate this tale as much as they did the original narrative.

Stevenson’s Treasure Island was a coming-of-age novel; equally so, Silver is an expression of young Jim’s maturation and of his intensifying feelings for Silver’s daughter, Natty. Silver also shows how very like their fathers they each can be, and, at the same time, how very different. To enhance their development, Motion surrounds the two with a cast of characters just as eccentric and idiosyncratic as their Treasure Island predecessors. The level-headed Captain Beamish, the whistling Bo’sun Kirkby, the scar-faced Jordan Hands, the evil triumvirate of Smirke and Stone and Jinks, Scotland the slave, the comic relief of Mr. Tickle, and a host of other quirky souls. Equally colorful are the settings of Silver. The novel opens awash on very Dickensian British marshes, then sails on a tactile sea of alternating winds and calm, and finally lands in a tropical paradise populated by an extraordinary gaggle of animals. My favorites were the doo-dahs, rotund chubby birds that cannot fly and are delicious when roasted for dinner.

The story line may be a bit fanciful, but it’s rollicking good fun. It’s been years since I’ve read Stevenson’s Treasure Island. So, I confess, last evening I watched on TV the 1990 movie that starred Charlton Heston as Long John Silver and Christian Bale as the original Jim [his voice had not yet changed, so he was several years younger than Silver’s hero in the novel I just finished reading]. That movie, too, was rollicking good fun. Andrew Motion catches that same joie de vivre spirit, overlays it with similarly macabre violence and evil, adds a hefty dose of humor, and produces a novel that those of us who love the old classics will thoroughly enjoy. I should re-read Treasure Island; I probably won’t; I’m very glad that I turned to Silver:  Return to Treasure Island instead.

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