The Pequod Review:
Because of his reputation as a writer of children's adventure stories, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) seems today to be enormously underappreciated as a novelist. Stevenson contributed to this perception early in his career with relatively simple stories like Treasure Island (1883) and The Black Arrow (1883), as well as the fact that he published most of his works in Young Folks Magazine. But his fifth novel, Kidnapped (1886), is an emphatically greater achievement – a nearly perfect combination of strong plotting and thematic depth.
Kidnapped is first and foremost a supremely enjoyable adventure story. It tells the story of David Balfour, a reserved teenager who, after the death of his father, sets out to a small Scottish town to claim his inheritance from a scheming uncle. Throughout the book, Stevenson writes action scenes that sparkle and pop, driven by superb pacing and tight descriptive prose. It is difficult to show this through excerpts (since the book’s pleasures are so reliant on the build-up of its plot), but here is a pivotal scene when David and his buddy Alan Breck retreat to a roundhouse where they are forced to defend themselves:
All this was upon Alan's side; and I had begun to think my share of the fight was at an end, when I heard someone drop softly on the roof above me.
Then there came a single call on the sea-pipe, and that was the signal. A knot of them made one rush of it, cutlass in hand, against the door; and at the same moment, the glass of the skylight was dashed in a thousand pieces, and a man leaped through and landed on the floor. Before he got his feet, I had clapped a pistol to his back, and might have shot him, too; only at the touch of him (and him alive) my whole flesh misgave me, and I could no more pull the trigger than I could have flown.
He had dropped his cutlass as he jumped, and when he felt the pistol, whipped straight round and laid hold of me, roaring out an oath; and at that either my courage came again, or I grew so much afraid as came to the same thing; for I gave a shriek and shot him in the midst of the body. He gave the most horrible, ugly groan and fell to the floor. The foot of a second fellow, whose legs were dangling through the skylight, struck me at the same time upon the head; and at that I snatched another pistol and shot this one through the thigh, so that he slipped through and tumbled in a lump on his companion's body. There was no talk of missing, any more than there was time to aim; I clapped the muzzle to the very place and fired.
His characterization is strong too; early on he introduces Alan Breck, the brave but impulsive Jacobite Highlander who joins up with David (a Whig Lowlander) on his mission:
He was smallish in stature, but well set and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark, and heavily freckled and pitted with the small-pox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming; and when he took off his great-coat, he laid a pair of fine silver-mounted pistols on the table, and I saw that he was belted with a great sword. His manners, besides, were elegant, and he pledged the captain handsomely. Altogether I thought of him, at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.
Another good (if tragic) profile is of a cabin boy named Ransome, who is abused and disrespected by his shipmates:
He told me his name was Ransome, and that he had followed the sea since he was nine, but could not say how old he was, as he had lost his reckoning. He showed me tattoo marks, baring his breast in the teeth of the wind and in spite of my remonstrances, for I thought it was enough to kill him; he swore horribly whenever he remembered, but more like a silly schoolboy than a man; and boasted of many wild and bad things that he had done: stealthy thefts, false accusations, ay, and even murder; but all with such a dearth of likelihood in the details, and such a weak and crazy swagger in the delivery, as disposed me rather to pity than to believe him…
I did my best in the small time allowed me to make some thing like a man, or rather I should say something like a boy, of the poor creature, Ransome. But his mind was scarce truly human. He could remember nothing of the time before he came to sea; only that his father had made clocks, and had a starling in the parlour, which could whistle "The North Countrie;" all else had been blotted out in these years of hardship and cruelties. He had a strange notion of the dry land, picked up from sailor's stories: that it was a place where lads were put to some kind of slavery called a trade, and where apprentices were continually lashed and clapped into foul prisons. In a town, he thought every second person a decoy, and every third house a place in which seamen would be drugged and murdered. To be sure, I would tell him how kindly I had myself been used upon that dry land he was so much afraid of, and how well fed and carefully taught both by my friends and my parents: and if he had been recently hurt, he would weep bitterly and swear to run away; but if he was in his usual crackbrain humour, or (still more) if he had had a glass of spirits in the roundhouse, he would deride the notion.
It was Mr. Riach (Heaven forgive him!) who gave the boy drink; and it was, doubtless, kindly meant; but besides that it was ruin to his health, it was the pitifullest thing in life to see this unhappy, unfriended creature staggering, and dancing, and talking he knew not what. Some of the men laughed, but not all; others would grow as black as thunder (thinking, perhaps, of their own childhood or their own children) and bid him stop that nonsense, and think what he was doing. As for me, I felt ashamed to look at him, and the poor child still comes about me in my dreams.
There are even good natural scenes:
This was a wood of birches, growing on a steep, craggy side of a mountain that overhung the loch. It had many openings and ferny dells; and a road or bridle track ran north and south through the midst of it, by the edge of which, where was a spring, I sat down to eat some oat-bread of Mr. Henderland's and think upon my situation.
Here I was not only troubled by a cloud of stinging midges, but far more by the doubts of my mind.
Kidnapped is a thrilling and imaginative adventure story, but it is also full of moral complexity and driven by a powerful desire for justice. It rises far above its basic plot to incorporate essential features of Scottish culture and history, especially the tensions that remained after the Jacobite Rising. This may be an enjoyable story for adolescents, but it’s an even more powerful novel for adults. Highly recommended.