There I am, age 8. It is summer, and I can finally read whatever I want. Not that I didn’t like the books we read during school (Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Day No Pigs Would Die, etc.). I always ended up liking those after the fact, but they had such banal names: the hell do I care about red fern or where it grows?! The things I actually wanted to read, the books with cool covers or that I’d seen in movies (or film strips!), were suddenly available with what was also the best possible food I could’ve imagined at the time: the McDonald’s Happy Meal. Into that goofy box I reach for a french fry, and out I pull…. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea! “Holy Shit!” my 8 year old self screams in the middle of Mickey D’s but inside my head so I don’t get busted by my mom who is standing right there. The next time: Kidnapped! Then The Man in the Iron Mask – whoa – what is going on with this one – daaaamn. With a stack of these babies – the glorious, deeply beloved, now piercingly nostalgic MOBY ILLUSTRATED CLASSICS – albeit adapted, modified, compressed – hey! just like chicken mcnuggets! – begged borrowed stolen mined culled reaped from my Happy Meals and those of kids who wasted their summer throwing round objects through hoops or wherever (fools!), and even though I was a latchkey kid with a single working-mom and no money or siblings to machinate with or against – I had Summer by the juevos and, in a sense – it never ended.
I, and people like me (perhaps you), owe a serious debt of gratitude to the McDonald’s execs who decided to put these classics alongside their otherwise unremarkable offerings. That was good work and it made a huge and permanent impact. (Now, work on the food, Ronald. Your coffee is good.)
Well, I’m too old to go back and read those exact adaptations, but I really miss those stories. So, I’m rereading and posting about a few of the originals this summer. I can’t promise any surprises; these are all weathered classics. I do expect a flush of emotional memory and a new appreciation of the intricate blah blah – meh – never mind all that – You know what I want? I want cool stories, especially ones where you can actually draw pictures of what’s happening. I want characters to admire – or fear – (Long John Silver, I’m talking to you, you twisted goon.) And I’ve already figured out that most of the books I loved were from the Victorian Era, over half of the Moby Illustrated Classics were, too. It was a pretty great time for exciting books that aren’t so multi-layered you need an advanced degree in literature to understand them (now I’m talking to you, James Joyce. With your pirate eye-patch. Goon.)
So, here they are: Victorian Reads from the unending Summer of 1978.
I had a full version of Treasure Island that was a bit too intimidating to read – so I read the Moby version, but stared long hours at the amazing illustrations from the big version – the exact ones which I can’t find anywhere, but they are still crystal clear in my head…
– young Jim Hawkins fumbling with a brace of pistols POINT BLANK at Israel Hands with a dagger between his teeth –
– waistcoated gentlemen in a small boat buffeted by gnarly waves, but managing to level a musket rifle back at the soon-to-be pirate ship, its cannon a-flash –
– half-crazed Ben Gunn skittering thru the jungle forest like a monkey, his head full of desperate schemes –
Treasure Island is a pretty realistic and gritty adventure story about a kid without superpowers or wizarding skills. It’s just him and his mom, trying to make a go of a seaside inn, when these asshole pirates start showing up. Next thing you know, he’s got a treasure map and a chance to turn things around. He makes some mistakes along the way, to be sure, but he’s clever as hell, a little bit lucky, and has guts to boot.
In the original, non-adapted version, you get pirate lingo so authentic that some of it is inscrutable. Nautical terminology abounds, too. I don’t know about you, but I find this really immersive. If I understand literally every word in a story supposedly set in a faraway land, it doesn’t feel so far away. Besides, you don’t really need to understand what Hawkins is doing with the mizzenmast clapbox saileyjiggy – you just need to know he has to get it working before Squinchy the Pirate stabs him in the face. Come on Hawkins – mizzen the jiggy! MIZZEN IT!
This book was written when pirates were still bad guys. Long John Silver is a pretty sophisticated villain, just this side of Shakespearean, with enough wits, toughness and duplicity to scare the wind outta your sails. While the sensibilities of the good guys are so tautly British, it’s a real insight into a way of thinking that had a huge impact on the world. As the pirates fire their cannon at the stockade where the good guys are making their stand:
“Captain,” said the squire, “the house is quite invisible from the ship. It must be the flag they are aiming at. Would it not be wiser to take it in?”
“Strike my colours!” cried the captain. “No, sir, not I”; and, as soon as he had said the words, I think we all agreed with him. For it was not only a piece of stout, seamanly, good feeling; it was good policy besides, and showed our enemies that we despised their cannonade.
In other words, we might go down, but we’ll go down the right way.
The smoke, the sand, the salt air, the rum-drunk pirate scum and that damn parrot: it sticks with you, and indeed, this is the book that’s done the most to make pirate tales a cultural staple. Which I suppose is a good thing. It’s blown a lot of kids’ imaginations up anyway, including mine.