Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Teller of Tales: Stevenson, Samoa, and The Last Bookaneer


I have been a long time Stevenson fan. I loved A Child's Garden of Verses as a girl. In third grade I discovered a slim biography on R. L. Stevenson in my classroom's small library. I read it several times, fascinated by his varied and romantic life. Some years ago I happened upon a tattered copy and picked it up. It was published in 1954, written by G. B. Stern and entitled Robert Louis Stevenson: The Man Who Wrote "Treasure Island. I had copies of Kidnapped and The Black Arrow; I loved the movie versions of Treasure Island. Some years ago I happened upon The Lighthouse Stevensons by Ella Bathurst and enjoyed it.

I have also been a Matthew Pearl fan since reading his first novel The Dante Club. His latest novel is The Bookaneers, a rollicking good read with lots of twists and turns and red herrings. A Bookaneer is Pearl's imagined literary pirates, back before the United States accepted European copywrite laws, vying to steal manuscripts to be sold to printers. Their idealized rationale was that literature must be available to the readers. Their motive, more than money, was pride in being the best thief.

Bookaneer Pen Davenport has asked bookseller Fergins to travel to Samoa with him as his sidekieck. Fergins was to record Davenport's last act as Bookaneer before the July 1, 1890 deadline when copyright laws are enacted in the United States. His object is to steal Robert Louis Stevenson's current novel. Their arch rival Belial has arrived before them, taking the role of a Marist priest to worm his way into the Stevenson household. Davenport is posing as a travel writer.

In 1889, after wandering the South Pacific, Stevenson settled in Samoa where he built a home, Vailima , where his and his wife and her children lived until his death in 1894. In The Bookaneers we meet Stevenson and learn about his life in Samoa and his 'lordship' over the natives who called him Tusitala-- The Teller of Tales. In a preliterate society without books, memorizing the tribal stories by a story teller was an important and revered role. Stevenson is a real presence, his lanky frame draped sideways over chairs, or sprawled on a bed surrounded by papers while writing.

The story is framed with Fergins telling his adventures with Davenport to a young friend, Mr. Clover, a dark skinned train waiter in love with books. Fergins himself is a Teller of Tales. This device allows Pearl to manipulate the plot in ingenious ways, keeping the reader on a roller coaster ride as Clover hears the story in pieces,and in the end goes on his own search for knowledge. Several times I thought the story had concluded; but one more twist was in store.

The book reminded me of an adventure tale, a romance like the old school stories of the 19th c. I enjoyed every minute.

I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Last Bookaneer
Mathew Pearl
Penguin Press
Publication April 28, 2015
ISBN: 9781594204920
$27.95 hardcover