Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kidnapped - Robert Louis Stevenson

Revisited this 222 page children's classic by Robert Louis Stevenson that had been glaring at me from my 'unread' bookshelf for several years. Written in 1886 by the famous Scottish writer who lived only to the age of 44 (1850-1894), and who wrote the classics such as 'Treasure Island' and the 'Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', it has real life incidents and people in the story and is set against the backdrop of a political murder, 'the Appin Murder', and is believed to be the influenced by the tale of one James Annesely who was shipped off in similar circumstances to America by his uncle, and who came back after 13 years to reclaim his inheritance.

The story is the tale of of David Balfour (Stevenson's real name was Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson) of the House of Shaws and Alan Breck, the reckless fugitive from law. It begins with David leaving his home after the death of his parents, who lived a modest life, and going in search of an uncle based on a letter his father has given him. David is an only child and he had never known of his uncle's presence and is delighted that he has a family, and a name. The uncle, Ebezener, is however not too fond of his new found relative and attempts to kill him. David survives the attempt, and the uncle makes peace, only to promptly arrange his kidnapping in connivance with the captain of a ship, to send him off to America as slave labour. Enter Alan Breck, whose boat is broken on collision with the  ship and a big fight on the ship with the greedy captain and the crew. Breck, supported by David, keeps them at bay, kills some, before the ship capsizes. The two find that they have totally opposite political philosophies, Alan supporting the House of Stuarts of Scotland and David sympahising with the Whig party of King George of England. But they become fast friends and soul mates. On land the two separate, meet again, in a moment when David witnesses before his very eyes the murder of Colin Roy alias 'Red Fox'. David is a suspect as he is on the scene and he flees only to find Alan on the scene of the crime as well, and David naturally suspects Alan has a hand in the murder as it had been Alan's desire to kill the tyrannical Red Fox. On the run the two go from house to  house, fleeing soldiers and meeting all sorts of people. After several twists and turns the duo return to the uncle Ebenezer ad reclaim David's property to him and his share of his inheritance which the uncle parts reluctantly with.

Written in a style of English that is different from modern day usage of the language 'Kidnapped' has so many twists and turns as David goes about following his heart and conscience. Stevenson also introduces so many new and interesting characters and disposes off some of them ruthlessly, as he does the sea hand Ransome, who is murdered on board by the ship's mate. David moves from scene to scene and there is no warning as to when any great calamity would befall him - the murder of Colin Ray itself coming up innocuously as he walks by seeking directions. The political situation in the background, the real characters, his own interest in legal history, all combine to make it all the more interesting to read as one can place and feel a slice of history in the mid 1750s when the actual story was to have taken place. The land is divided as that of the Campbells, Stewarts and such other names and the dialogue is delightful with the straight talking, easy-to-take-offence men. As always I feel that truth is stranger than fiction as the background story to 'Kidnapped' is as interesting or far more adventurous than the one David Balfour and the enterprising Alen Breck undertake.

Interestingly Stevenson it appears comes from a family of reputed 'lighthouse engineers' who built several lighthouses of the day. He joined an engineering course at the University of Edinburgh and dropped out, wrote stories almost all his life, was a sickly, eccentric child, became a bohemian, rejected Christianity and even founded a club that rejected everything that parents taught. He also travelled to America in search of his love, a married woman with children, almost died because of ill health, lived on forty five cents a day to make do, met her and married her finally despite their failing health, and produced a child as well. The marriage brought the estranged father and son together. Truth is stranger than fiction.

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