'Silver': courage and terror in the sequel to Treasure Island
In "Silver: Return to Treasure Island," former British poet laureate Andrew Motion writes a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins in a story crammed with "incident, intrigue and peril."
Special to The Seattle Times
'Silver: Return to Treasure Island'
by Andrew Motion
Crown, 376 pp., $24
The last we knew of Treasure Island? Cabin boy Jim Hawkins and the ruthless reprobate Long John Silver were headed back to England after their ripping adventure, with a stash of silver. But they left behind several bloodthirsty pirates marooned on that forbidding, distant isle, and some of the plunder.
If you think that was that, you aren't familiar with the ongoing craze for modern authors' sequels to well-read books, ranging from "Pride and Prejudice" to "Gone with the Wind" and beyond. The final phrase "The End" at the close of a beloved novel is now perceived as simply an invitation for another installment.
It's risky messing with a classic like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," a masterly yarn that has enthralled, scared and given great pleasure to generations of young (and older) readers. It's a story that's been eagerly devoured since first appearing in print as a magazine serial in the 1880s, under Stevenson's fanciful pseudonym, Captain George North.
But if one approaches British poet and scholar Andrew Motion's new sequel, "Silver: Return to Treasure Island," with some trepidation, it is soon dispelled by the absorbing first-person narrative of the new Jim Hawkins — the nature-loving son of the original Jim. After a glance back to the Stevenson tome, Motion sends us along on Jim's swashbuckling, seafaring, coming-of-age odyssey to retrieve the loot Silver and his father (now a melancholy widower and innkeeper) didn't make off with 20 years earlier.
This Jim is not only an observant lad but quite polite and rather a soft touch. In a vividly described early scene in "Silver," he spots the boat of a shadowy nocturnal visitor in the Thames estuary near his home, a figure whose "silhouette disappeared as moonlight shuddered across the surface of the water."
That would be Natty, not "a sprite or a vision" but the clever, beguiling 17-year old daughter of the notorious Silver, whom Jim's father parted ways with long before.
Motion's rationale for Young Jim to spontaneously agree to steal the treasure map, and join Natty's dangerous quest for the remaining loot, is a bit fuzzy. But then again, who could resist hopping aboard the good ship Nightingale, commandeered by stouthearted Captain Beamish, as it sails off beyond the horizon to vanquish pirates and load up with riches?
Like Stevenson's engrossing tales, "Silver" is crammed with incident, intrigue and peril. Motion has added a lofty moral mission that transcends mere greed: the liberation of a pathetic group of slaves who are victims of the marooned pirates' debauchery and brutality. (Child alert: these thugs are a far worse breed of pirate than the clownish rogues seen in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.)
Motion, a former poet laureate of the United Kingdom, includes captivating descriptions of exotic flora and fauna, birds, sea creatures and other wonders Jim marvels over. And the boy's surrogate father-son relationship with Beamish, and chaste infatuation with spunky Natty (who spends much of the voyage masquerading as a boy), are sensitively realized.
Now and then "Silver" does hits some swells and doldrums while navigating a roiling plot. I lost track of how many brushes with death (by drowning, swordplay and other terrors) Jim and Natty encounter, alone and separately, and how many miraculous escapes. Even an adventure story can go overboard with that sort of thing.
And if Jim's highly articulate narration can be explained by the private-school education his father gave him, this lad can also seem too good to be true on occasion.
But one gets easily swept up by the suspenseful story "Silver" tells, and the excitement, dread and courage of its young narrator and his companions. For maximum enjoyment, consider a return to Stevenson's seminal "Treasure Island" — as a refresher, or a prequel.
Misha Berson is the theater critic
for The Seattle Times.