Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Not just an adventure tale

Michael Dirda seems to love books that I love. Today he writes about Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped:
...Kidnapped is...more than just exciting and more than just a kids’ book; it’s a thoughtful novel about politics and dissent, rich in moral complexity, and, for a reader in 2021, weirdly contemporary at times. It’s also beautifully written, the occasional Scots word or phrase contributing to its peaty flavor.

At its center is David Balfour, who at 17, following the death of his schoolteacher father in 1751, hikes to the small town of Cramond, near Edinburgh, with a letter for an uncle he never knew he had. ....
About a central character, Alan Breck Stewart:
.... One foggy night the Covenant, still in Scotland’s coastal waters, inadvertently runs down a rowboat. Everyone on board drowns, except for one man who rescues himself by leaping up and grabbing the ship’s bowsprit:

“He was smallish in stature,” recalls David, “but well set up 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 greatcoat, 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.... Altogether I thought of him, at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.”

Alan, it turns out, is a Jacobite, one of the highlanders who, defeated at the Battle of Culloden five years previous, nonetheless continue to support the “restoration” of the Stuarts to the throne of England. ....

From the moment this coolly self-possessed outlaw swings aboard the Covenant, Kidnapped begins to speed up, to move faster and faster, like the quicksilver thrusts of Alan’s sword, and only slows occasionally so that the reader and our heroes can catch their breath. ....

Still, above them all and beyond praise, are the chapters titled “The Flight in the Heather,” during which the two comrades...try to escape capture by a life-or-death scramble across the rough terrain of the Scottish highlands. These pages provide the template for many later classics of topographical pursuit, including John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. As Stevenson once said, “No man is any use until he has dared everything.” .... (more, but probably behind a subscription wall)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ is not just an adventure tale, it’s a timely novel about politics and dissent

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