If you stand back from Kidnapped, you'll probably come to the conclusion that it's highly improbable and far-fetched. But that's just your trouble—you don't stand back from a Robert Louis Stevenson story. He won't let you. As soon as you start the first page, he drags you in and keeps your head just below the surface till the end. By then, it all seem perfectly plausible.
This is one of the world's great adventure stories. In the 1750s, just after the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, a young man named David Balfour (who also narrates) sets out to seek his fortune upon the death of his parents. Balfour's Uncle Ebenezer lives in an old manor called the House of Shaws, to which Balfour makes his way with a letter addressed to his uncle.
On the way, he meets several people to whom he mentions the House of Shaws. Reactions vary in violence, but everyone acts as though Balfour uttered a swear word or a curse. The sense of foreboding increases until Balfour finally reaches Ebenezer's home with its gloomy exterior and tall tower like a wizard's dwelling.
Stevenson was a master of atmoshpere, and he excels here. Balfour is constantly surrounded by crazy people, decrepit castles, pirates, bellicose Highlanders, thieves, and heather-covered hills, and he describes them sparingly but vividly so that we feel like we're right next to him during all his adventures.
And there are many adventures. After Ebenezer tries to kill his nephew, Balfour is kidnapped by pirates, survives a sea battle and a mutiny, meets the real Jacobit figure Alan Breck Stewart with whom he becomes close friends, travels through perilous and daunting country, and ultimately unravels the family secret Ebenezer went to such great lengths to keep from him.
In some ways, Kidnapped is similar toTreasure Island. Both deal with piracy, greed, high seas treachery, and a young man with enough wits and bravery to do the right thing in spite of the danger. But David Balfour learns more than Jim Hawkins, and grows from a teenager to a man through the tutelage of Alan Breck and the dire circumstances of his quest.
When Balfour finally returns to Ebenezer and the House of Shaws, he's a much different person. And while he is rewarded for his virtue in wealth and nobility, unlike most adventure stories this one climaxes with a certain sadness as Balfour turns to the less exciting life that awaits him, and waves goodbye to his friend Alan Breck.
There are plenty of swordfights, chases, and wild characters to keep almost any reader pressing on, but there are also accurate and fascinating portraits of post-Jacobite Scotland with its Presbyterian warriors, fortune hunters, and eccentrics. Whether you're looking for an entertaining read or a serious reflection on manhood and friendship, look no further than Kidnapped.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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