Thursday, November 26, 2009

287. Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stephenson

History: This book was published in 1886.
Plot: The central character and narrator is a young man named David Balfour (Balfour being Stevenson's mother's maiden name), young but resourceful, whose parents have recently died and who is out to make his way in the world. He is given a letter by the minister of Essendean, Mr. Campbell, to be delivered to the ominous House of Shaws in Cramond, where David's uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, lives. On his journey, David inquires to many people where the House of Shaws is, and all of them speak of it darkly as a place of fear and evil.
David arrives at the House of Shaws and is confronted by his paranoid Uncle Ebenezer, armed with a blunderbuss. His uncle is also miserly living on "parritch" and ale, and indeed the House of Shaws itself is partially unfinished and somewhat ruinous. David is allowed to stay, and soon discovers evidence that his father may have been older than his uncle, thus making himself the rightful heir to the estate. Ebenezer asks David to get a chest from the top of a tower in the house, but refuses to provide a lamp or candle. David is forced to scale the stairs in the dark, and realizes that not only is the tower unfinished in some places, but that the steps simply end abruptly and fall into the abyss. David concludes that his uncle intended for him to have an "accident" so as not to have to give over his inheritance.
David confronts his uncle, who promises to tell David the whole story of his father the next morning. A ship's cabin boy, Ransome, arrives the next day, and tells Ebenezer that Captain Hoseason of the brig Covenant, needs to meet him to discuss business. Ebenezer takes David to South Queensferry, where Hoseason awaits, and David makes the mistake of leaving his uncle alone with the captain while he visits the docks with Ransome. Hoseason later offers to take them on board the brig briefly, and David complies, only to see his uncle returning to shore alone in a skiff and is then immediately struck senseless.
David awakens bound hand and foot in the hull of the ship. He becomes weak and sick, and one of the Covenant's officers, Mr. Riach, convinces Hoseason to move David up to the forecastle. Mr. Shuan, a mate on the ship finally takes his routine abuse of Ransome too far and murders the unfortunate youth. David is repulsed at the crew's behaviour, and learns that the Captain plans to sell him into servitude in the Carolinas.
David replaces the slain cabin boy, and the ship encounters contrary winds which drive her back toward Scotland. Fog-bound near the Hebrides, they strike a small boat. All of its crew are killed except one man, Alan Breck {Stewart}, who is brought on board and offers Hoseason a large sum of money drop him off on the mainland. David later overhears the crew plotting to kill Breck and take all his money. The two barricade themselves in the round house where Alan kills the murderous Shuan, and David wounds Hoseason. Five of the crew are killed outright, and the rest refuse to continue fighting.
Alan is a Jacobite Catholic who supports the claim of the House of Stuart to the throne of Scotland. He is initially suspicious of the pro-Whig David, who is also friendly toward the Campbells. Still, the young man has giving a good account of himself in the fighting and impresses the old soldier.
Hoseason has no choice but to give Alan and David passage back to the mainland. David tells his tale of woe to Alan, and Alan explains that the country of Appin where he is from is under the tyrannical administration of Colin Roy of Glenure, a Campbell and English agent. Alan vows that should he find the "Red Fox," he will kill him.
The Covenant tries to negotiate a difficult channel without a proper chart or pilot, and is soon driven aground on a rocky reef. David and Alan are separated in the confusion, with David being washed ashore on the isle of Erraid near Mull, while Alan and the surviving crew row to safety on that same island. David spends a few days alone in the wild before getting his bearings.
David learns that his new friend has survived, and has two encounters with beggarly guides, one whom attempts to stab him with a knife, and another who is blind but an excellent shot with a pistol. David soon reaches Torosay where he is ferried across the river and receives further instructions from Alan's friend Neil Roy McRob, and later meets a Catechist who takes the lad to the mainland.
As he continues his journey, David encounters none other than the Red Fox (Colin Roy) himself, who is accompanied by a lawyer, servant, and sheriff's officer. When David stops the Campbell man to ask him for directions, a hidden sniper kills the hated King's agent. David is denounced as a conspirator and flees for his life, but by chance reunites with Alan. The youth believes Breck to be the assassin, but Alan denies responsibility. The pair flee from Redcoat search parties until they reach James (Stewart) of the Glens, whose family is burying their hidden store of weapons and burning papers which could incriminate them. James tells the travellers that he will have no choice but to "paper" them (distribute printed descriptions of the two with a reward listed), but provides them with weapons and food for their journey south.
Alan and David then begin their flight through the heather, hiding from English soldiers by day. As the two continue their journey, David's health rapidly deteriorates, and by the time they are set upon by wild Highlanders who serve a chief in hiding, Cluny Macpherson, he is barely conscious. Alan convinces Cluny to give them shelter. The Highland Chieftain takes a dislike to David, but defers to the wily Breck's opinion of the lad. David is tended by Cluny's people, and soon recovers, though in the meantime Alan loses all of their money playing cards with Cluny.
As David and Alan continue their flight, David becomes progressively more ill, and he nurses anger against Breck for several days over the loss of his money. The pair nearly come to blows, but eventually reach the house of Duncan Dhu, who is a brilliant piper.
While staying there, Alan meets a foe of his, Robin Oig--son of Rob Roy MacGregor, who is a murderer and renegade. Alan and Robin nearly fight a duel, but Duncan persuades them to leave the contest to bagpipes. Both play brilliantly, but Alan admits Robin is the better piper, so the quarrel is resolved and Alan and David prepare to leave the Highlands and return to David's country.
In one of the most humorous passages in the book, Alan convinces an innkeeper's daughter from Limekilns that David is a dying young Jacobite nobleman, in spite of David's objections, and she ferries them across the Firth of Forth. There they meet a lawyer of David's uncle, Mr. Rankeillor, who agrees to help David receive his inheritance.
David and the lawyer hide in bushes outside the Ebenezer's house while Breck speaks to him, claiming to be a man who found David nearly dead after the wreck of the Covenant and is representing folk holding him captive in the Hebrides. He asks David's uncle whether to kill him or keep him. The uncle flatly denies Alan's statement that David had been kidnapped, but eventually admits that he paid Hoseason "twenty pound" to take David to "Caroliny". David and Rankeillor then emerge from their hiding places and speak with Ebenezer in the kitchen, after which the story of David's patronage is revealed: Apparently, his father and uncle had once quarrelled over a woman, and the older Balfour had married her; informally giving the estate to his brother while living as an impoverished school-teacher with his wife. This agreement had lapsed with his death, and David was provided two-thirds of the estate's income for as long as his wicked uncle survived.
The novel ends with David and Alan parting ways, Alan going to France, and David going to a bank to settle his money. At one point in the book, a reference is made to David's eventually studying at the University of Leyden, a fairly common practice for young Scottish gentry seeking a law career in the eighteenth century.
Review: I liked it, but not as much as Treasure Island. It's amusing how much Kidnapped matches the standard blockbuster fantasy plot without being a fantasy at all. This sort of adventure story is often written as fantasy these days, with the otherness of magic and medieval cultures replacing the otherness of historic Scotland and its wilds, and yet little of the plot changes without the fantasy element. Without the escalating discovery of power or the mythological structure, there's less going on, but the complexities of Scottish politics fill in and feel deeper than most fantasy politics.
Strange places, attractive rogues, adventure on the high seas, and a bit of Scottish political intrigue make this an adventure and provide the obvious appeal, but the strength of Stevenson's writing lies in the character interactions. Not the characters themselves as much: David is a solid everyman, young and a bit brash and full of self-confidence. Alan is a classic rogue, with some fighting skill, a gift of gab, and a gambling problem. The other characters also tend to stick closely to stock types, and none change much over the course of the adventure. But they all feel deep and nuanced because Stevenson's touch with dialogue and interaction is exceptional.
David expresses an attitude of superiority and adventure in the first-person narration that fits his age and mingles with a straight-laced attitude from his upbringing that occasionally catches him by surprise. Alan isn't just a rogue with a heart of gold; he's obnoxious to David as well, when he's in that mood. David doesn't quite know how to deal with their conflicting political beliefs. When they finally have a serious fight, it's one of the most honest fights I've seen in a book of this sort; they fight like adults with real resentment, true to their characters, rather than like petulant children or angsting teenagers.
There are some flaws. I found the beginning and end of the book by far the strongest, and got rather tired of the extended wander across the Scottish Highlands punctuated by only a few significant events. The final resolution of David's inheritance is a wonderful set piece but a touch too easy (although Stevenson does a great job making the victory a bit less than complete for practical reasons). And this is still a boy's adventure novel, an exciting romp and not much more than that. But it's a great example of the genre.
Opening Line: I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”
Closing Line: “The hand of Providence brought me in my drifting to the very doors of the British Linen Company’s bank.”
Quotes: “Even I, who had the tide going out and in before me in the bay, and even watched for the ebbs, the better to get my shellfish -- even I (I say) if I had sat down to think, instead of raging at my fate, must have soon guessed the secret, and got free. It was no wonder the fishers had not understood me. The wonder was rather that they had ever guessed my pitiful illusion, and taken the trouble to come back. I had starved with cold and hunger on that island for close upon one hundred hours. But for the fishers, I might have left my bones there, in pure folly. And even as it was, I had paid for it pretty dear, not only in past sufferings, but in my present case; being clothed like a beggar-man, scarce able to walk, and in great pain of my sore throat.”
Rating: Good

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