Nancy Horan certainly found treasure with her debut novel, Loving Frank, a fictionalized account of the life and loves of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Horan reaches for the skies above Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland’s beloved author of Treasure Island. In my and my book club’s opinion, the second book was less successful, perhaps because we could find no one to really like very much.
Robert Louis Stevenson, despite his adventurous tales, was consumptive most of his life. For some unfathomable reason, he fell head over heels in love with the (in Horan’s telling) vain, neurotic, self-centered Fanny Van de Griff Osborne, an Indiana native, who had run away from her cheating husband in California. Fanny took care of Louis far better than her own son who died before she and Louis returned to California to seek and obtain Fanny’s divorce so she could marry.
All of this — and I MEAN ALL — is recounted in great detail in Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Clearly, Horan’s research was in-depth, wide-spread and exhaustive. As I reader though, I just wasn’t quite sure I needed to know exactly what they had for lunch on July 28, 1887 or the name of the third purser to the second captain on the boat they didn’t take. I jest, but after 470-some pages, you will see what I mean.
The New York Times had a far better opinion than I, calling Under the Wide and Starry Sky “a novel that shows how love and marriage can simultaneously offer inspiration and encumbrance, especially when the more successful partner believes that, as far as artists go, “a family could tolerate only one.” The Stevensons’ story is full of morbidity and sacrifice, chronicling losses and gains — and, of course, the writing of classics like “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Kidnapped,” none of which, Horan suggests, would have been possible without Fanny Stevenson’s careful nurturing of her husband.”
Fanny, in Horan’s hands, holds no charm for the reader.
The carved clock on the mantel ticked off a minute before she said dully, “Just write.”
She resisted being joked into a happier humor.
“A good novel might cure your boredom,” he suggested when he realized Fanny had stopped reading books or writing stories. Only the Lancet held her attention.
“This article says that some vinegars erode your intestines.”
Under the Wide and Starry Sky depicted Stevenson’s creative process in an engaging, inviting manner. Enough to cause me to download and listen to the audiobook of Treasure Island, a classic novel I’d never made time for in the past.
Louis spread out a piece of paper on a table and began painting an island with some watercolors. Below the drawing, he wrote “Treasure Island.”
“Imagine that there is an island where a chest full of gold is buried,” he said to Sammy. “There is a boy named Jim who, quite by chance, comes into possession of a map of the island. The map has been drawn by a crusty old sailor of questionable morals, a man named, ah . . . Billy . . . Billy Bones. And through some series of events, the boy goes off on a schooner to look for the treasure. He is traveling with a collection of sailors, some of them decent fellows, and some scoundrels bent on killing the other men when they find the gold . . .”
I had no idea that in Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson essentially created out of whole cloth the entire peg-legged, parrot-carrying, shivering-me-timbers, x-marks-the-treasure-spot, dead-men’s-chest pirate that we know and love, OH JOHNNY DEPP how we love ye, today.
But he did. And he came up with the names Ben Gunn, Long John Silver, Billy Bones, the Hispaniola. Treasure Island is a fun, but somewhat tedious on audio, adventure. But maybe I’m just partial to my Kentucky homie Mr. Depp. Treasure Island though I can recommend without reservation to read for your book club. It is one of the most frequently dramatized of all novels and a fun one to read to your children. It’s got those little passages that send a shiver down the timbers.
“His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were–about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main. By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea, and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described. My father was always saying the inn would be ruined, for people would soon cease coming there to be tyrannized over and put down, and sent shivering to their beds; but I really believe his presence did us good. People were frightened at the time, but on looking back they rather liked it; it was a fine excitement in a quiet country life, and there was even a party of the younger men who pretended to admire him, calling him a “true sea-dog” and a “real old salt” and such like names, and saying there was the sort of man that made England terrible at sea.”
I marked several passages of food in Under the Wide and Starry Sky and the narrative travels from Scotland, England, France to San Francisco, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. In one scene on a particularly warm evening in Bournemouth, Scotland, they serve a large bowl of mashed potatoes with lamb. When Louis takes off on a donkey for a road trip, he takes with him “black bread, a bottle of brandy, a leg of mutton. . . .Tin of chocolates and sausage.” On the Pacific Island, due to a shipping halt, at one point, RLS and Fanny shared one avocado for dinner. The salts of Treasure Island drink lots of rum, brandy and eat lots and lots of salted goat (ugh). So have at the salted goat if you want, but here’s my Treasure Island-inspired menu:
2 cups spiced rum
2 1/2 cups pineapple juice
2 1/2 cups orange juice
1/4 cup lime
Mix and serve over ice.
Barbecued chicken legs or wings
Those little gold coin chocolates
There is mention of a Mozart sonata or two in Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum repeats and repeats (and repeats) in Treasure Island.
My playlist would include
Jimmy Buffet’s A Pirate Looks at 40.
Ray Steven’s The Pirate Song
Soundtrack from Pirates of the Caribbean
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