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This is the shortened title. The entire one is way too long! In any case, it is one
of Stevenson's adventure stories intended for boys, but is most certainly enjoyable for adults. I liked it very much. When I first began reading
Stevenson's books, they were the creepy ones—
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,
The Suicide Club. . . But he was a
many faceted writer, and his Scottish heritage inspired other stories. This is one of them, and also represents one of the many works he wrote for children.
The main character is a boy, David Balfour, Balfour being Stevenson's mother's maiden name. It is also an historical novel because the other main character,
Alan Breck Stewart, was discovered as Stevenson and his wife were doing research for other writings. It takes place during the Jacobite uprising, which
must have been terribly tough on the Scottish Highlanders.
One point I want to make concerning the Project Gutenberg edition. By all means, download the selection with images. Project Gutenberg says that they do not adjust in size for small screens like tablets, but that is not true. My little Nextbook screen is less than twice as big as a smartphone, and the images displayed just fine, and they are lovely and add even more interest to the story.
The tale begins as David Balfour says goodbye to the minister at Essendean, Mr. Campbell. His father has died, and he is off on an adventure, but knows not where. Mr. Campbell then gives him information, a letter David's father had given him for safe keeping when he should die. It instructs Mr. Campbell to send David off to the house of Shaws, saying that's where he came from, and where David belongs. It is a mystery to both David and Mr. Campbell, but Mr. Campbell does know that the Balfours were of the House of Shaws. He is to seek Ebenezer Balfour when he arrives.
As David reaches Cramond, he begins to make enquiries of Ebenezer Balfour, and receives lots of dirty looks, and even warnings to stay away. He becomes more alarmed when he meets with a "stout, dark, sour-looking woman" named Jennet Clouston who spits on the ground and puts a curse on Ebenezer.
David finally arrives at the dilapidated house, only partially finished, and knocks on the door where he is greeted reluctantly and in darkness by a nasty, decrepit old man who seems to know who he is. David enters the kitchen into what he thought was "the barest room I ever put my eyes on." Supper—a bowl of porridge—was set on the table. Ebenezer offers it to David, then asks to see the letter of introduction written to him by David's late father which Mr. Campbell had held in keeping. Then comes the shock—this disgusting and ragged man is David's uncle.
David was under the impression that he was seeking wealthy kinsfolk who might give him support. His hopes are dashed. All this is too much, especially in his tired state after walking so far. Ebenezer shows him to his room up a dark passage—the old man is afraid of fire, so he says. He is sent to a dark, cold room where he cannot see and hears the door being locked. The bed is "damp as a peat-hag" so he rolls up in his bundle and falls asleep. He awakens as the sun begins to rise, and finds himself in a room that was probably grand in its day, but now is covered in filth and decay. He bangs on the door, and his uncle lets him out. They go to the kitchen and once again eat porridge. His uncle also has a glass of ale, and when he asks if David would like some, he pours half from his own cup. What a wretched and miserly man!
At first David is intimidated, but gradually realizes his uncle does not mean him well. He threatens to leave, but for some reason, Ebenezer seems to want him to stay. Little by little, David grasps that there is a mystery—something about his family he should know, something kept from him, and he begins to question his uncle on matters that have him confused, especially when he finds a book written in his father's hand, inscribed "To my brother Ebenezer on his fifth birthday." David was under the impression his father was the younger one, because of course, he did not gain the estate. Now David is starting to see what a scoundrel his uncle is, but he also knows he is physically stronger and can protect himself if necessary.
But the worst comes when Ebenezer sends him up to the tower on outside steps in the dark, and during a pouring storm. As he gropes his way up, lightning flashes and reveals that the step are unfinished and one slip will lead to a death fall. He manages to make it back down and approaches his uncle quietly from behind. Ebenezer, thinking David is now dead, falls onto the floor in shock. David grabs the keys, and opens a chest with a rusty scabbard, then throws water into his uncle's face to revive him. This night, it is David who locks Ebenezer in his room. The next morning David has it out with him.
But soon a knock comes at the door, a boy with a message from a shipper, Elias Hoseason, the captain of the Covenant. David agrees to go with his uncle and the boy, where they will also meet with Mr. Rankeillor, Ebenezer's attorney. David thinks he will be safe in a populated shipping town, but he gets double-crossed. Before he realizes what has happened, he finds himself on board the Covenant, bound and knocked out, where he will be headed for the United States to be sold into slavery.
And that is the kidnapping part. But the rest of the story goes quite in a different direction. Mr. Riach, one of the two mates, threatens the captain with murder and demands David's release. As for the boy, Ransome, who fetched David and his uncle, and is used to being beaten, Mr. Shuan one day goes too far, and beats him to death. David now fills his position, and gains headway in his situation. But it is when the Covenant hits a boat, and one survivor is saved that everything turns around, and David heads into his greatest adventure.
And that man is Alan Breck Stewart, in the service of King Louis of France, wanted in Scotland for being a Jacobite. I have to admit I don't understand much concerning these uprisings, except that the Jacobites sought to return King James Stuart to the throne and oust King George. The Master of Ballantrae also was somewhat built on this theme, but not to the extent of this novel. Here, the struggles of the Scottish Highlanders are revealed in a most sympathetic perspective. The landowners had lost their rights, the clans were broken up and the wearing of family tartans became illegal.
At first Alan is wary of David, a Whig on the side of King George, and worst yet, a friend of the Campbells, Alan's sworn enemies. But they get past their differences and unite in friendship. When the captain plans to do away with Alan, David betrays him and sides with the latter, and the two of them kill many of the crew, who of course had kidnapped David and plan to sell him. Alan and David escape, though not together. The Covenant is wrecked and David manages to get to a deserted island, where he spends days in misery, hunger, and cold rain. He is finally made aware by a passing ship that he may easily walk to the main island at low tide to safety. He and Alan are reunited, and the rest of the story paints a fascinating portrait of the barren Scottish Highlands. Not a place one would want to be stranded, for certain.
In reality, Alan Breck Stewart was wanted for the murder of Colin Roy Campbell. In the novel, it is not he that commits the act, though he is accused of it, but in real life. . .? When the book was published, Stevenson received heated and emotional letters from both sides even so long after the event. Kidnapped was published in 1886. The real event happened over a century earlier.
Though it was originally written as a boy's novel, I found the story exciting and compelling. Stevenson also wrote an equally thrilling, though less well-known sequel to this story called David Balfour, or, Catriona. I am never disappointed in his works. Highly recommended.
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