For Jan Needle Treasure Island has always been a very special book, one which he returns to often. Here he makes us a present of his thoughts about why it fascinates him and why he believes it has much to teach us about writing for children.
Ever since it was published almost a hundred years ago, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, has been recognised as one of the best children’s books ever written. On the surface, the reasons for its success seem obvious. The map, the treasure, the pirates, the brave young hero; they are, simply, classic ingredients for an adventure yarn. But Treasure Island, I think, is far far more than just an adventure yarn. I reread it quite frequently – the last time before I started writing this – and I remain convinced that it is a deeply important book in terms of children’s literature, both for readers and practitioners.
Even at its simplest level of success, its story, Treasure Island has much to teach us about writing for children. Many many other books, of course, have the ‘classic ingredients’ I mentioned before, but I know of no other that deploys them with such unremitting intensity. After only 8,000 words, at the end of a mere six out of thirty-four chapters, we have seen the quiet life of a simple country boy transformed. Jim Hawkins has met and been terrorised by three appalling villains – Billy Bones, Black Dog and blind Pew. He has shared in the deaths of two of them, as well as that of his father. His livelihood (the inn) has been smashed, and his thirst for adventure – and treasure – has been aroused. Six chapters further on, and Jim is faced with the awareness that the `adventure’ is a nightmare that will almost certainly end in torture, degradation and death.
In adventure terms, the way the story works through and on Jim Hawkins is vital. Everything (except three chapters necessarily told by Dr Livesey) happens to him. But because of his character – a magic mixture of naivety, intelligence, stupidity, impatience, modesty and selfcongratulation – it also usually happens because of him. A good example is the sequence of events that forms Part Five: Jim’s `Sea Adventure’. After the bloody and terrifying attack on the stockade is over, Jim – like the mere boy he is – gets fed up and goes walkabout. This utterly stupid action quickly runs away with him and he finds himself cutting free the Hispaniola, which is at anchor in the hands of the pirates. In a rush of events totally beyond his control he is forced to kill a man, gets pinned to a mast by a knife in the process, then `escapes’ back to the stockade only to walk into the arms of the enemy. Like almost every other twist in the narrative (and there are plenty more to come, well after the point where most writers would have begun to cruise towards their conclusion) it is entirely organic, entirely uncontrived.
It is the organic nature of the narrative, the fact that it is a natural progression of events which come about through the actions of the characters, that lifts Stevenson’s story into far more complex areas of success than as a mere adventure. For what he did was to write a book about a child, ostensibly for children, which utterly refuses to fudge the issues raised by its basic situation. The hero is young, but nothing that happens is allowed to be softened by this fact. Treasure Island is the story of a child in a world not just of adults, but of totally ruthless, indeed mentally crippled, adults. And Stevenson was prepared to stare this fact in the face.
The violence of this world is at first handled with subtlety. Horrible as Bones and Pew are, they are kept firmly in check. You marvel at their nastiness, but you are not made to fear it, it is nastiness at a remove. But as soon as Jim is on the island, his escape-routes cut off, Stevenson drives home his point. It is a hammer-blow; a stark and startling revelation of just what the expedition means and where it will all quite possibly end.
The revelation comes – as it must to achieve its complex effect – through the agency of the real giant of the book, John Silver. From the moment we have met him, we have been seduced. Like Squire Trelawney, like Dr Livesey, like young Jim, we love him. Here, the brilliance of Stevenson’s writing is amazing – because we have been told time and again (as has Jim) that Silver is a villain. He himself has even stated, without equivocation, that when the time comes for the mutineers to rise, his `vote’ (for the others) is death, and that he will personally tear Trelawney’s ‘calf’s head off his body with these hands’. His charisma, strangely, is undiminished.
It is Silver, then, who strikes `the first blow’. He is trying to persuade a loyal man called Tom to join the pirates. Jim is watching from a bush, and all three of them hear the death cries of another `loyal’ who is being killed elsewhere. At this Tom, in disgust, bravely turns his back on Silver and storms off.
`But he was not destined to go far. With a cry, John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back. His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.’
Then, before Jim’s horrified eyes, Silver leaps onto the man and – panting – stabs him to death.
From this moment forward the violence and villainy accelerate. In one extraordinary sequence Hawkins has a philosophical conversation with Israel Hands, the ship’s coxswain whom he is soon to kill, in which he says that dead people, he believes, live on in another world. Hands replies: `Well, that’s unfort’nate – appears as if killing parties was a waste of time.’ Right until the very end, too, Silver seeks the greatest success for himself alone, and is prepared to murder anyone, including Jim, to achieve it. The death toll, in fact, is amazing.
Because Jim is narrator, and because Jim is a child, the other strand of moral viciousness in the story goes unremarked. But it is there, and it is not deeply buried. This is the undercurrent of greed that motivates the `good’ camp. Almost at the beginning Jim notes that his mother has risked their lives through greed, and he reflects, as narrator, the stupidity and stubbornness of Squire Trelawney. Even more fascinating, perhaps, is the background which Stevenson (a Scot) gave to Livesey (one of the very `best’ of the `good’ characters): `I was not new to violent death,’ the doctor tells us. `I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland.’ Livesey, in fact, served the butcher of the Scots.
It is a chilling point, but not one that should be made too much of. Stevenson was certainly aware of the moral ambiguities in his story and characters, but far more importantly he was prepared to write about the evil in mankind in its most naked manifestations. He was writing about a time in which a boy could quite easily have become enmeshed in such a situation, and he wanted him to survive it. But it is worth remembering that Jim alone of the characters is never deeply interested in the treasure. From the moment the island is sighted he hates it, and at the end he has nightmares about a place that `oxen and wainropes’ would not drag him back to. He does not even bother to mention how he used his share of the loot.
Jim saves the adults in his camp, and they in turn recover the treasure, through a series of adventures that are extremely exciting. But the process is hardly a romp, and it is certainly not a game. At the end, seventeen men have died, many of them horribly and in full view, a charismatic mass-murderer has been allowed to escape, and a boy has had his taste for adventure shattered. As to the treasure itself, Jim writes:
`How many [lives] it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow… what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell.’
It is a strange feeling to be left with at the end of a `good pirate yarn’.
One must never forget though, that the extraordinary success of Treasure Island, its many levels and moral complexities, are a product, first and foremost, of the fact that it is a rattling good yarn. It has a superb story, and a host of brilliantly achieved characters (even minor ones, like Ben Gunn, Hands, Pew, and so on, are vivid with life) who are totally at one with it. For a reader, that’s a lot to be thankful for. For a writer, it’s a lot to try to achieve!
Jan Needle’s first book for children, Albeson and the Germans, appeared in 1977. It caused quite a stir in the children’s book world because of the power and directness of the writing and its unusual plotAlbeson, his view of Germans formed by his elders’ war-time recollections and by comics, faces the prospect of two of them coming to his school.
Four years and ten books later, Jan Needle is still stirring things up. A Fine Boy for Killing (1979) was attacked by some for its `brutal realism’ and `violence’. It is, says Jan, `the novel which could be said to be most influenced by Treasure Island in that it poses boys in a violent and entirely adult situation that starts, and remains, beyond their control or even understanding.’ Its setting is the British navy of the Napoleonic wars; but its themes are in no way irrelevant to the 1980s: something which has not escaped its many teenage readers.
In Books for Keeps 4 Eric Hadley wrote: `In the best sense it is completely serious. Jan Needle looks deep into the moral pressures on children living in a world of pernicious class divisions, bullying thoughtlessness and egomania, as well as unlooked for heroism.’
Three Needle titles have been published this year: Wild Wood – an alternative Wind in the Willows, Losers Weepers and Another Fine Mess – a sequel to The Size Spies in which Cynthia and George with the professor and some others tangle with a less than perfect time machine. He’s also been writing. `I’ve just finished a novel that takes me firmly back into the social realistic mode after these three which were all rather gentler. It’s not titled or typed yet, though, so I can’t tell you much about it.’
What next? `I have another sea adventure in mind, this time involving a female. I’ll probably write that next year.’ Something to look forward to. Like it or hate it, you’d be unwise to ignore a new Jan Needle if you’re in any way involved with children.
Albeson and the Germans
Andre Deutsch, 0 233 96900 4, £2.75
Lions, 0 00 671900 7, 95p
A Fine Boy for Killing
Andre Deutsch, 0 233 97106 8, £4.95
(ill. William Rushton) Andre Deutsch, 0 233 97346 X, £5.95
Another Fine Mess
0 233 97370 2. £4.95
Methuen, 0 416 21510 6, £3.95