Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Very Old Friend: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 1)

It's an undisputed fact among book lovers that some tomes simply feel like friends. These titles may or may not be on the Great Books list. They may or may not have led you to deep insights on the nature of man, or the purpose of the universe. They are simply the books you fall in love with, the ones you crave to live inside, for a little while.

This book, for me, was Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. I could try to make some profound literary analysis of it, or unravel its eternal themes. But I can't say that Kidnapped ever pointed me, directly, towards those lasting truths that I typically look for in a good story. And yet it is a good story--a braw tale, to put it in the Scots--easily my favorite, and strangely monumental in my memory.

This is simply my excuse for the fact that this post, and any other posts I write on Kidnapped, are less like a literary analysis and more like a love story, littered with random details no one is interested in except myself. But it's the only way I can ever hope to convey my experience with this book. Kidnapped is an old friend. I couldn't write about it any other way.

I met this friend on a gray Sunday morning in February of 2011, on my older brother's dresser. I had wandered into his room bored, looking aimlessly for something to do in the half hour or so before we left for church. The book was a fat red one, a collection of Stevenson's more popular poems, short stories and novels. I couldn't tell you why I decided on Kidnapped. I had heard the title before, of course, but had no conception of the plot. Actually I had a vague notion the whole story was set in America. So I had no preparation for a plunge into 1750s Scotland.
Straightaway I fell in with Davie Balfour's honest, pleasant narration. So what if the style was a bit old-fashioned? So what if the dialogue threw out these strange Scottish words I'd never seen before, like "muckle", "siller", "kittle". It all drew me into a new, entrancing, very real world.

For the rest of the day, I could hardly tear myself from the book. It didn't matter that I knew, at the time, virtually nothing about the Jacobite Rebellions. The pure thrill of story carried me along at a breakneck pace. Each emotion-packed scene made a deep impression--David's first dark hours aboard the brig; the victory of the roundhouse; the flight through the heather; the quarrel...scenes that I read and re-read, almost trembling with excitement. Kidnapped had kidnapped me, completely.

I finished the book that same afternoon, in a kind of delirium. Never had I been so utterly absorbed in a story for an entire day. And yet the experience was exhausting. I had read so furiously that the plot was a blur, and even the names of the characters did not stick in my mind. Only those particular scenes, those moments of high romance, the memory of the thrill.

Besides that, hardly a thought of the book crossed my mind for the next year. Then one night in March 2012, a friend in church choir gave us a big box of books (always an event in the Woods household). Wedged somewhere between a coffee-table book on Versailles and a Michael Crichton novel, sat a splendid old edition of Kidnapped. Charles Scribners's Sons, 1946. Dark blue cloth binding, only a wee bit tattered, emblazoned on the front with a gorgeous N.C. Wyeth illustration. (N.C. Wyeth deserves a blog post all to himself; I have a mini-obsession with his work.) Inside, pages softly browned, deeply scented with that wise, musty, old-book smell.  Graced throughout with more N.C. Wyeth gems.

Delighted, I immediately claimed this treasure as my own. That night, flipping through it almost with awe, I fell upon this passage, at the beginning of Chapter 7, which had overwhelmed me a year ago:

I came to myself in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water as of a huge mill-dam, the thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world now heaved giddily up, and now rushed giddily downward; and so sick and hurt was I in body, and my mind so much confounded, that it took me a long while, chasing my thoughts up and down, and ever stunned again by a fresh stab of pain, to realise that I must be lying somewhere bound in the belly of that unlucky ship, and that the wind must have strengthen to a gale.

Instantly I was there again; no, I was David Balfour again, bound and despairing in the stormy bliges of the Covenant. The adventure had not faded. It awaited me once more.

To be continued