Often enough, a great author's masterpieces aren't his most popular works. This is certainly true in the case of the brilliant and little-known The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson. On the surface, it's the story of two brothers divided over one woman and the family inheritance, but on a deeper level it's about personal honor and it's price.
When the Jacobite Rebellion erupts in Scotland, the two Durie brothers hatch a plan to retain their noble name and estate—one brother will join the rebels, and the other will remain loyal to the British crown. That way, no matter which side wins, the Duries will remain the masters of Ballantrae.
But things don't shake down quite that way. Henry Durie, the younger brother, ends up a loyalist at the insistence of James, who wants adventure and excitement and thinks he'll get it as a rebel. He does. Yet James, a snaky man who can get his way through manipulation in nearly every situation, decides to accuse Henry of trying to oust him as inheritor of the manor and family title.
What follows is a series of wild adventures that take James and Henry through dealings with pirates, tramps through the North American wilderness, and midnight sword fights. The novel is narrated by Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate (the house name of the Duries), though much of the most adventurous sections are narrated by James himself.
Many of the themes Stevenson explores here appear with less nuance and profundity in his much more famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If Henry (the good guy) and James (the really bad guy) are the two sides of human nature, the light and the shadow, what essentially unfolds between them is a battle between honor and duplicity, maturity and empty machismo, selflessness and utter self-absorption.
The Master of Ballantrae is a tricky book to read. Is Henry really any better than his irresponsible brother? After all, the scheme they hatch together to keep their name and estate is pretty sketchy in its own right. And then there's Henry's wife, who'd been engaged to James but married Henry when James disappeared, and who still loves the bad guy even though the good guy is so good to her. Or is he? Stevenson isn't prevaricating, he's looking hard at human weakness and depravity.
If you're looking for non-stop action, this probably isn't the book you want. There's plenty of adventure, but much less than most of Stevenson's books, and much more reflection on human nature. If you're looking for a book that will keep you turning pages and pondering deeply, however, look no further. This is a brilliant book that will outlast many more shallow adventure stories.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and 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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