I learned of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) when I was maybe 9 years old, courtesy of the go-fish card game Authors. Stevenson’s doleful countenance on the cards made more of an impression on me than did the titles of his works, the most notable of which were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island. Sadly, the game did not sway me to read his works or, for that matter, any work by any author in the card game’s 11-deity pantheon.*
I bring up Mr. Stevenson now because, recalling him from the Authors game, I decided the other day to look him up in Librivox, an archive of recorded written works in the public domain. Something I often plug into to fall asleep.
How surprised I was then, as I dialed up Stevenson’s short story Markheim, to find myself captivated by his writing. The man tells a gripping tale, imbued with a dramatic flair that almost makes the start and finish beside the point. My follow-up Stevenson selection was The Sire de Maletroit’s Door, an allegory of choice, chance and fate. This story felt a bit contrived but its telling was just as suspenseful and rich in detail.
I ultimately arrived at the Librivox doorstep of Kidnapped, a novel published by Stevenson in 1886. The tale is ostensibly about David Balfour, a young and earnest Scotsman who, recently orphaned and seeking to secure his inheritance, is kidnapped by an unscrupulous seaman (aren’t they all!) hired by David’s miserly uncle to make David — and his claim to the family estate — disappear.
But the meat of the story is about David’s post-kidnap adventure and evolving relationship with Alan Breck Stewart, best described in modern terms as a Scot activist/militant. David meets Alan thanks to a chance collision between his kidnapper’s brig and a smaller boat ferrying Stewart to an unnamed destination. The collision hurls Stewart onto the bowsprit of the brig, from where he is brought on board and from whence the real action begins.
David and Alan’s relationship is often described as a bromance (Kidnapped was dismissed as a “boy’s story” in Stevenson’s time) but I could make the argument, without authority, that the tale is about the perils, turmoils and vulnerabilities of gay relationships of the era. It certainly reads as more-than-a-friendship to my 21st-century eyes.
In fact, I speculate that the title Kidnapped refers not to David’s confinement on the brig — which comes to an abrupt end via shipwreck — but to the capture of his heart by Alan. This becomes clear as David, navigating his way back home, struggles to resolve his love for the risky Alan vs. his instinct for self-survival, a conflict which Stevenson casts in ever-sharper contrast as the story hurtles forward.
You will have to read (or listen to) Kidnapped yourself to see if you see what I see. But in any event, there is more to Robert Louis Stevenson than a card with a mournful face and the titles of some boy’s stories printed on it. I’m glad I went fishing and discovered him.
Postface… or Perhaps Just Part II
This got me to thinking that there should be a children’s card game called Songwriters which captures the artistic tastes of its generation (mine) and would be just as dated as Authors was when it was published. For authenticity, the portraits of the songwriters would have to be just as formal and stiff as in the original game.
My own Songwriters deck would feature 13 of them, like a regular deck of cards. Here they are, in alphabetical order, along with the songs that would appear on each set of four:
Chuck Berry: No Particular Place to Go, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen.
David Bowie: Space Oddity, All the Young Dudes, Young Americans, Changes.
Willie Dixon: Spoonful, Back Door Man, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You.
Bob Dylan: Blowin’ in the Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower.
George Harrison: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun, Something, My Sweet Lord.
Eddie Holland: Heat Wave, Stop! In the Name of Love, You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Reach Out I’ll Be There.
Carole King: You’ve Got a Friend, It’s Too Late, So Far Away, I Feel the Earth Move.
John Lennon: Help!, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Imagine.
Paul McCartney: Yesterday, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Maybe I’m Amazed.
Sarah McLachlan: Adia, Angel, I Will Remember You, Possession.
Cole Porter: Anything Goes, Just One of Those Things, I Love Paris, Night and Day.
Carly Simon: That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, Nobody Does It Better, Anticipation, You’re So Vain.
Paul Simon: The Sound of Silence, I Am a Rock, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Brian Wilson: Good Vibrations, Surf City, God Only Knows, In My Room.
Neil Young: Down by the River, Heart of Gold, Ohio, Southern Man.
Can someone please produce a set of these cards? I am dying to ask a fellow player if they have a Hoochie Coochie Man in their hand.