A couple of years ago, my friend Brad read Treasure Island for the first time and couldn’t get over how great it was. I understand the feeling — I am continually reading classic works and discovering for myself why they have remained so beloved across the decades and centuries — and his enthusiasm made me determined to revisit the tale I had not read since childhood, and not revisited since the Muppets’ version hit theatres in 1996.
The next day, I happened upon this book, the author’s name leaping out at me due to my recent conversation with Brad, which is the pre-fame Stevenson’s account of his trip from Scotland to America by boat, and then cross country by train, to win the hand of his lady love. And sure, I still reread Treasure Island. (It’s a gem, of course.) But I had not even previously been aware that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a travel narrative, let alone had a lady love, so of course this was immediately added to the list, as well.
Most of my knowledge of boat crossings from the UK to America comes from Titanic, so it was easy to picture the adventure as Stevenson discusses his time as a 2nd Class passenger on the steamer, and of his “experiments” with living as one of the common classes. He has a lot to say about his fellow passengers, and some of it is more than a little condescending — an educated fellow looking down on the downtrodden — but he mostly delights in their company and he has a very sure pen, especially when he writes in caricature.
The long trip by train across the still-fledgling US frontier was my favourite part of the book, not only because I love a long trip by train, but also for the contemporary account of the social structure prevalent at the time, as well as his horror at the treatment of Native Americans by the American people and government. His keen eye for personality and foible is also amply displayed, and he describes his fellow travellers in few words but fine style, while his own difficulties — especially, an ongoing illness; his constitution was never good — he treats with a stoic stiff-upper-lipness that one can’t help but appreciate.
At times amusing, at times thoughtful, at all times fascinating, what a joy to have so belatedly discovered this early example of humorous travel writing, which is now one of my very favourite genres. And, for all that it surprised me at the time, and I am now very glad Brad never read Treasure Island as a kid. I might never have noticed or known about this book, else.
TBR DAY 110: The Amateur Emigrant: From the Clyde to Sandy Hook by Robert Louis Stevenson
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.