Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Island of Treasure

When, just a child, I first saw Disney's film of Treasure Island (1950), based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), I was frightened. I remember two scenes today clearly. One: When the pirate throws a knife at Jim, who's climbed the mast to escape; the blade sticks in his shoulder; Jim responds by shooting the pirate in the face. Two: When the wounded Jim returns to the good guys' little fort on the island, he stumbles into the room looking for his doctor friend. Instead, Long John Silver rises from sleep, sees Jim, and cries, "Matey!"

I know: Doesn't sound all that scary in these days of chainsaws and machetes and horny vampires and amazing special effects. But it was plenty for me in 1950; I was six.

As I write these words, I still have not read Treasure Island. I didn't read it when I was a kid: No teacher ever assigned it, and I wouldn't have read it on my own. I didn't like hard books then--I still don't, but, of course, my definition of "hard book" has evolved. I just now looked at the online text of Treasure Island, and here's the opening paragraph:

SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

Not all that daunting, not now. But in the 1950s? I would have gone for something easier--a boy's biography of Jim Bowie, maybe--or the Classics Illustrated edition of Treasure Island, which I did read over and over. We had lots of those comics in the house (the only ones my parents truly sanctioned), and I'd learned early that some comic book is better than no comic book, so, in a way, I read all the classics when I was but a lad.

As the years went on, I never did read Treasure Island. No one ever assigned any Stevenson in college or grad school--though, for some reason, I did read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And Stevenson's poems for children--A Child's Garden of Verses--sat on the shelf at my grandparents' house--and in our house (even as it would later stand on our own shelf when we became parents in 1972). One of those poems--"My Shadow"--I can clearly remember my grandmother reciting to me, and many years later, I memorized it myself. And those words were the first words I spoke to my first grandson, Logan (now nearly 9), when I held him in the hospital just moments after his birth. Some tears interrupted the flow of the words, of course. If you don't remember that poem, here it is ...

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all.

He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he's a coward you can see;
I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Not all that long ago, I memorized another Stevenson poem--"Requiem," the one that composes the epitaph on Stevenson's grave in Samoa.

UNDER the wide and starry sky 
  Dig the grave and let me lie: 
Glad did I live and gladly die, 
  And I laid me down with a will. 
This be the verse you 'grave for me:         5
  Here he lies where he long'd to be; 
Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 
  And the hunter home from the hill. 
Recently, reading Earle Labor's wonderful new biography of Jack London, I remembered that the Londons went out of their way to visit Stevenson's grave when (in 1907-08) they were attempting circumnavigation in The Snark. London greatly admired Stevenson--and this was his tribute.

So ... here's what I've been getting at. Last Thursday, we had our grandson Carson (4 1/2) with us for most of the day. Joyce had bought him a new book (How I Became a Pirate), which he loved so much that I had to read it aloud several hundred thousand times during the day. By coincidence, I had received from Netflix, just the day before, a DVD of the old Disney Treasure Island. Early that afternoon (exhausted!), I asked Carson if he'd like to see a little bit of a pirate movie. Did he!?

I don't think I'd seen Treasure Island since I was a boy. I originally saw it at one of the Enid, Oklahoma, movie theaters when it arrived in the Sooner State, and I saw it again on Disneyland now and then. Watching with Carson, Joyce and I were surprised by how much talking there was in the film (which, I've subsequently learned, was Disney's first live-action feature); no adventure film for kids these days would dare have so much dialogue.

Carson's interest was in and out--in during the action, out during the dialogue. (So was mine, actually.) We turned it off right after the mutiny. His parents had called and were on the way to pick him up. So he hasn't seen the end yet. But we bought it for him for Christmas (along with a children's version of the story; I think I'll order the old Classics Illustrated for him, too).

That night, upstairs, Joyce and I watched the rest of it in bed. Well, I watched the rest of it. Joyce grew very silent after a while, and her breathing got very regular. Not sure what that meant ...

Those two scenes I mentioned earlier were just as I'd remembered them (no dotard, I!), and at the end I was touched when Jim helps John Silver escape. I remember being touched as a boy, too. And I was wondering, the other night, if 1950 was the first time when I realized there are ambiguities in life? That some people (most people?) are some combination of "good" and "bad"? I had not learned such a lesson from the ga-jillion cowboy shows I watched on TV. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, et al.--those guys were pure goodness, just as their antagonists were pure wickedness. But little Jim Hawkins ... he saw more clearly.

And now I'm going to order the book. And read it. It's about time ...

Here's a link to the original 1950 trailer. And here's another link to the entire film.

No comments:

Post a Comment