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Friday, February 17, 2012

KIDNAPPED BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

BOOK REVIEW
Kidanpped
by Robert Louis Stevenson
originally published 1886
this edition Penguin Classics 2005
Introduction and Notes by Donald McFarlan

    I didn't realize until finishing Kidnapped, that it was written not a year after H. Rider Haggard's classic early adventure novel, King Solomon's Mines.  I think when you start reading the late 19th century adventure novels, of which King Solomon's Mines and the entire Robert Louis Stevenson catalog,  you are getting into subjects that still pull an audience today.  There is a relationship between the late 19th century adventure novel and many, many, many top selling books today- see THE AIRPORT for examples.

    Notable about the creation of the modern adventure novel are a couple of main themes to keep in mind.  First, is the issue of advances in style that occurred between the 18th century, when many of the "first" novels had "adventure" themes.  Second, is the change in Audience size and composition that began to happen in the late 19th century.  Specifically, the growth of mass market periodicals (Kidnapped was first published in serial form, as were many classic 19th century Novels), second the growth of children and young adult readers as an audience for those periodicals and resulting books.

  King Solomon's Mines and Kidnapped are a good illustration of different market segments-   King Solomon was published initially as a book, as an adult book- with publicity etc.  Kidnapped was published serially in a magazine called "YOUNG FOLKS" and was self-consciously a "boy's novel."

  An interesting aspect of Kidnapped that certainly does not fit within the historic designation of "boy's novel" is it's relationship in time to the setting depicted.  Specifically, this book written for children in 1886 is set in the Scottish highlands of the mid 18th century.  This is a time and a place riven by rebellion against the King of England and it has the same kind of romantic quality embodied in more familiar places like the post-Civil War South or the late 19th century Western United States, i.e. it's a wild place, with restless natives and danger/intrigue abound.

  Mind you, Stevenson was actually writing during a period when both those other examples- the Wild West, and Post Reconstruction South, were closer to the present then the time/place depicted.  It is just another example of the tenacious hold on the imagination of the English/British exercised by the Scottish Highlands of the 18th/19th century.  Truly, were one to look up a definition of "Romanticism" in the early 19th century you'd probably see a charcoal outline of a Scottish highlands scene.

  The plot of Kidnapped involves David Balfour, a "young laird" who comes into the Scottish village of Cramond to see about his inheritance, only to be hustled off onto a ship bound for the United States by his a-hole uncle-  where he is to be sold into slavery (!)  Once afloat he teams up with a Jacobite Scottish nobleman trying to smuggle himself into Scotland to collect taxes for his laird, exiled and penniless in France as a result of the recently unsuccessful Jacboite rebellion.

  The ship wrecks and David Balfour has to walk across the Scottish highlands, pursued by English soldiers and wanted for a murder his Jacobite buddy is suspected of committing.   The pacing and observational style are closer to what we think of as modern prose then antecedents like Robinson Crusoe.  Also, many of the rough edges of the 18th century novel- most assuredly written for adults- have been smoothed out by a half century of Victorianism and what's left is a truly classic work that stands up to the present day.

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