The Story of the Treasure Seekers

by E. Nesbit

Cover image

Publisher: Amazon
Copyright: 1899
Printing: May 2012
Format: Kindle
Pages: 136

Buy at Powell's Books

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was originally published in 1899 and is no longer covered by copyright. I read the free Amazon Kindle version because it was convenient. My guess is that Amazon is republishing the Project Gutenberg version, but they only credit "a community of volunteers."

There are six Bastable children: Dora, Oswald, Dicky, the twins Alice and Noel, and Horace Octavius (H.O.), the youngest. Their mother is dead and the family's finances have suffered in the wake of her death (or, as the first-person narrator puts it, "the fortunes of the ancient House of Bastable were really fallen"), which means that their father works long hours and is very absorbed with his business. That leaves the six kids largely to fend for themselves, since they can't afford school. Clearly the solution is to find treasure.

This is a fix-up novel constructed from short stories that were originally published in various periodicals, reordered and occasionally rewritten for the collected publication. To be honest, calling it a fix-up novel is generous; there are some references to previous events, but the first fourteen chapters can mostly stand alone. The last two chapters are closely related and provide an ending. More on that in a moment.

What grabs the reader's attention from the first paragraph is the writing style:

This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.

There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, "Alas!" said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, "we must look our last on this ancestral home" — and then some one else says something — and you don't know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is, or anything about it.

The first-person narrator of The Story of the Treasure Seekers is one of the six kids.

It is one of us that tells this story — but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will.

The narrator then goes on to elaborately praise one of the kids, occasionally accidentally uses "I" instead of their name, and then remembers and tries to hide who is telling the story again. It's beautifully done and had me snickering throughout the book. It's not much of a mystery (you will figure out who is telling the story very quickly), but Nesbit captures the writing style of a kid astonishingly well without making the story poorly written. Descriptions of events have a headlong style that captures a child's sense of adventure and heedless immortality mixed with quiet observations that remind the reader that kids don't miss as much as people think they do.

I think the most skillful part of this book is the way Nesbit captures a kid's disregard of literary convention. The narrator in a book written by an adult tends to fit into a standard choice of story-telling style and follow it consistently. Even first-person narrators who break some of those rules feel like intentionally constructed characters. The Story of the Treasure Seekers is instead half "kid telling a story" and half "kid trying to emulate the way stories are told in books" and tends to veer wildly between the two when the narrator gets excited, as if they're vaguely aware of the conventions they're supposed to be following but are murky on the specifics. It feels exactly like the sort of book a smart and well-read kid would write (with extensive help from an editor).

The other thing that Nesbit handles exceptionally well is the dynamic between the six kids. This is a collection of fairly short stories, so there isn't a lot of room for characterization. The kids are mostly sketched out with one or two memorable quirks. But Nesbit puts a lot of effort into the dynamics that arise between the children in a tight-knit family, properly making the group of kids as a whole and in various combinations a sort of character in their own right. Never for a moment does either the reader or the kids forget that they have siblings. Most adventures involve some process of sorting out who is going to come along and who is going to do other things, and there's a constant but unobtrusive background rhythm of bickering, making up, supporting each other, being frustrated by each other, and getting exasperated at each other's quirks. It's one of the better-written sibling dynamics that I've read.

I somehow managed to miss Nesbit entirely as a kid, probably because she didn't write long series and child me was strongly biased towards books that were part of long series. (One book was at most a pleasant few hours; there needed to be a whole series attached to get any reasonable amount of reading out of the world.) This was nonetheless a fun bit of nostalgia because it was so much like the books I did read: kids finding adventures and making things up, getting into various trouble but getting out of it by being honest and kind, and only occasional and spotty adult supervision. Reading as an adult, I can see the touches of melancholy of loss that Nesbit embeds into this quest for riches, but part of the appeal of the stories is that the kids determinedly refuse to talk about it except as a problem to be solved.

Nesbit was a rather famous progressive, but this is still a book of its time, which means there's one instance of the n-word and the kids have grown up playing the very racist version of cowboys and indians. The narrator also does a lot of stereotyping of boys and girls, although Nesbit undermines that a bit by making Alice a tomboy. I found all of this easier to ignore because the story is narrated by one of the kids who doesn't know any better, but your mileage may vary.

I am always entertained by how anyone worth writing about in a British children's novel of this era has servants. You know the Bastables have fallen upon hard times because they only have one servant. The kids don't have much respect for Eliza, which I found a bit off-putting, and I wondered what this world looks like from her perspective. She clearly did a lot of the work of raising these motherless kids, but the kids view her as the hired help or an obstacle to be avoided, and there's not a lot of gratitude present.

As the stories unfold, it becomes more and more clear that there's a quiet conspiracy of surrounding adults to watch out for these kids, which the kids never notice. This says good things about society, but it does undermine the adventures a little, and by the end of the book the sameness of the stories was wearing a bit thin. The high point of the book is probably chapter eight, in which the kids make their own newspaper, the entirety of which is reproduced in the book and is a note-perfect recreation of what an enterprising group of kids would come up with.

In the last two stories, Nesbit tacks on an ending that was probably obligatory, but which I thought undermined some of the emotional subtext of the rest of the book. I'm not sure how else one could have put an ending on this book, but the ending she chose emphasized the degree to which the adventures really were just play, and the kids are rewarded in these stories for their ethics and their circumstances rather than for anything they concretely do. It's a bit unsatisfying.

This is mostly a nostalgia read, but I'm glad I read it. If this book was not part of your childhood, it's worth reading if only for how well Nesbit captures a child's narrative voice.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-01-30

Last spun 2022-12-12 from thread modified 2022-01-31