Kidnapped

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Cover image

Series: David Balfour #1
Publisher: Signet
Copyright: 1886
Printing: 1981
ISBN: 0-451-51972-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 239

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Kidnapped is one of the few classics assigned in elementary school that I actually read in elementary school, and one of the few books I had to read for school that I really liked. I think it's a great book for convincing kids that classics can be readable and fun, although it is a boy's adventure novel and as an adult I found it thin in places.

David Balfour had a quiet upbringing in the Scotland Lowlands, but his parents have both died and it's time to go out into the world to seek his fortune. He's set on his path by the local minister, pointed at a nearby city where he has relations. From there, he discovers he is the rightful heir to a family fortune, is betrayed by his uncle, kidnapped into a sea voyage, meets and pairs with a rogue, makes his way across the wild Scottish Highlands, and in short follows the standard path of the coming of age adventure story.

It's amusing how much Kidnapped matches the standard blockbuster fantasy plot without being a fantasy at all. This sort of adventure story is often written as fantasy these days, with the otherness of magic and medieval cultures replacing the otherness of historic Scotland and its wilds, and yet little of the plot changes without the fantasy element. Without the escalating discovery of power or the mythological structure, there's less going on, but the complexities of Scottish politics fill in and feel deeper than most fantasy politics.

Strange places, attractive rogues, adventure on the high seas, and a bit of Scottish political intrigue make this an adventure and provide the obvious appeal, but the strength of Stevenson's writing lies in the character interactions. Not the characters themselves as much: David is a solid everyman, young and a bit brash and full of self-confidence. Alan is a classic rogue, with some fighting skill, a gift of gab, and a gambling problem. The other characters also tend to stick closely to stock types, and none change much over the course of the adventure. But they all feel deep and nuanced because Stevenson's touch with dialogue and interaction is exceptional.

David expresses an attitude of superiority and adventure in the first-person narration that fits his age and mingles with a straight-laced attitude from his upbringing that occasionally catches him by surprise. Alan isn't just a rogue with a heart of gold; he's obnoxious to David as well, when he's in that mood. David doesn't quite know how to deal with their conflicting political beliefs. When they finally have a serious fight, it's one of the most honest fights I've seen in a book of this sort; they fight like adults with real resentment, true to their characters, rather than like petulant children or angsting teenagers.

There are some flaws. I found the beginning and end of the book by far the strongest, and got rather tired of the extended wander across the Scottish Highlands punctuated by only a few significant events. The final resolution of David's inheritance is a wonderful set piece but a touch too easy (although Stevenson does a great job making the victory a bit less than complete for practical reasons). And this is still a boy's adventure novel, an exciting romp and not much more than that. But it's a great example of the genre.

While a complete story, it also ends on something of a to-be-continued cliff-hanger around the political situation that David stumbles into, something that I found frustrating as a kid. The sequel, so that others can avoid the hunt that I went on, is available now as Catriona even though it was originally published as David Balfour.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-01-30

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04