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Oct 14, 2011

Kidnapped: Robert Louis Stevenson

There is a very good reason why Robert Louis Stevenson's books are still made into movies. Take, for example, the Disney animated hit Treasure Planet, which was based on Stevenson's Treasure Island. The book is just as rousing an adventure now as it was more than a hundred years ago, and has therefore been the subject of many movie adaptations and the inspiration for countless other children's novels since then.
Although somewhat lesser known, Stevenson's Kidnapped is no less timeless. Following the death of his father, David Balfour finds that he has wealthy kinsmen in a nearby town, and that his father's wish was that he would seek them out. Upon his arrival at his uncle's house, David discovers that he is unwelcome, and slowly the truth of his identity begins to unravel.

Kidnapped is more than a story about a young man's search for his true birthright, however – Stevenson knew that more than that was needed to capture a young adult's attention for the length of an entire novel. Even as David is working out the meaning of his uncle’s odd behavior, his newfound relative is plotting against him. David suddenly finds himself kidnapped and aboard a ship destined for the American colonies, where he is to be sold into servitude, presumably at his uncle's behest.

David's situation seems hopeless until Alan Breck comes aboard the ship. Almost immediately upon Alan's arrival comes a desperate battle for their survival. Thrust into a situation where they must count each other allies against the greedy crew, David and Alan become fast friends. After a brief separation caused by the sinking of the ship, they travel together for the remainder of the novel.

Although it is the kidnapping that starts the novel's adventures, David spends only a short time as a captive. In fact, without Alan's friendship, the story might have been quickly resolved, with David either being delivered into slavery or escaping to starve for want of money. As it is, David ends his captivity aboard ship by stumbling into new adventures, all the while with Alan at his side: he is wanted for murder, evades soldiers and scouting parties, meets dangerous Jacobite outlaws, and eventually develops a ploy to trick his uncle into giving him his inheritance.

Stevenson clearly uses Alan's character to drive the plot by introducing new and increasingly more thrilling dangers to David’s predicament. However, many of the adventures that David experiences are also caused by his naivety and over-confidence. For example, early in the book he is so certain that he can handle his uncle's attempts to get rid of him that he unwittingly walks right into a trap. Later in the story, when he is shipwrecked on an island, he nearly dies of starvation and exposure before finding out that his "island" is separated from the mainland only when the tide is in. The combination of Alan's influences and David's own propensity for getting himself into trouble result in a novel that is sometimes humorous, sometimes invigorating, but always impossible to put down.

It is hard to believe that a novel of Kidnapped's caliber – or, indeed, any of Stevenson's adventure novels – was written primarily from Stevenson's bed. Unfortunately, Stevenson suffered from lung ailments throughout his short life. As did many who could afford to in those days, Stevenson traveled extensively, always in search of a climate that could cure his condition. Stevenson was often confined to bed on these travels, leaving him to imagine and write all of the adventures he was never himself able to experience. Some of his most well known adventures – Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Kidnapped – were written during periods of almost constant illness.

Regardless of his perpetually failing health, Stevenson understood the value of a powerful, fast-moving adventure. The popularity of Kidnapped, well over a century after it was first published, demonstrates the timelessness of the story. Set in Scotland and the surrounding sea, Kidnapped maintains a rapid and suspenseful pace throughout the book, riveting the reader from start to finish.

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