Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Brother's Books: R.M. Ballantyne

When I went to visit my brother and his family last month, I couldn't help taking a look at their bookcase. Wow, I saw some pretty books there. I know, all books are pretty. But these were stunning; I was salivating. There was a colorful row of about 10 multicolored cloth-bound books with gold lettering on the spines.

My brother saw me peeping. "That's the series I'm reading now. Christmas present from my family."

"What are they?"

"Adventure books!" my nephew said. "You can read them; they're not inappropriate." I had to smile; I knew where that was coming from. I felt like telling him: "Kid, reading inappropriate stuff is the beauty part of being an adult," but his mom is of the helicopter persuasion and there were more important things at hand so I kept my lip buttoned and focused on my introduction to R. M. Ballantyne. How had I missed hearing about this guy? How did he get past my Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm?

Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-1894)was a 19th century Scottish juvenile author who specialized in adventure. Ballantyne seems to have done his research first-hand, taking journeys to places anywhere "from the Arctic to the South Pacific". His tales stressed "Christian character in the face of adversity." In his day, he was a bestselling author, often churning out 3 books a year. I didn't do an exact count, but he seems to have written more than 50 novels. His first hit, The Coral Island (1857) was read and admired by boys everywhere, especially little Bobby Lou Stevenson, who grew up to write Treasure Island. In a poem that prefaces the story, Stevenson pays tribute to "Ballantyne The Brave".

According to Wikipedia, Ballantyne made a mistake in his first book about the thickness of coconut shells, so after that, he was determined to do scrupulous research on the topics and settings in his novels. For example, he had worked as a young man in "the wilds of Canada", which provided material for several books, he worked with London firemen for Fighting The Flames and tin miners in Cornwall for Deep Down. A fan site, started by a 16-year old Ballantyne enthusiast has a cool world map that has stars on it representing various locales around the globe where 20+ of his novels took place. When you click on a star, a brief summary of each book is displayed.

All of his books apparently feature young men who are tweens or early teens who are facing some kind of life challenge and following the example of role models around them, they learn to keep cool and courageous, never waver in showing gallantry and let God be their compass. The last is one of the reasons Ballantyne fell out of fashion in recent years, and also why he's come roaring back more than a century after his death.

From that first moment at my brother's bookcase, I was intrigued by Ballantyne, but slightly put off by what I assume is heavy religious content. I was picturing Elsie Dinsmore except Elmer Dinsmore. Then, when my brother and I were corresponding about Ballantyne, he sent me a little snippet from the web describing Ballantyne's work that included this caution: Ballantyne describes incidents in a graphic manner. Parents may want to preview. Finding out that this guy in all his piety still had the power to alarm mommies made me determined to be courageous and gallant about the religious didacticism and read him myself. Although I can't get my hands on those gorgeous books, Ballantyne's works are available at Project Gutenberg.

Tuffi is practically in rapture because we'll be adding another 19th-century author to plug up the abysmal gaps in our literary knowledge, I'm pleased because I've discovered (well, my brother has -- a damned unlikely source, too! Who'd have thunk it?) an author that's rather obscure (or is Ballantyne obscure? Is it possible that I'm just late to the party?), and both Tuffi and I are pretty jiggy knowing that we've gained awareness of an important link in juvenile fiction. It's a lot to chew on. Thanks, Bro.


Jeane said...

I never heard of Ballantyne. Do share more about him as you read!

Carrie K said...

I've read Ballantyne but I may not be the best judge of obscure. I don't remember him being overly graphic or pious but then again, I totally missed the Christian allegory in the Narnia novels.

I wonder how that went over at home - "Honey, I've got to go to the wilds of Canada for some research. You know how awful that brouhaha over the cocoanut shell damaged my reputation..." Any excuse to get out of the house.

Anonymous said...

My parents are Scots and so The Coral Island was one of the books we read as children, alongside RLS's Kidnapped, Catriona and Treasure Island. The other book I recall reading by Ballentyne was The Young Fur Traders.
I'm fairly sure that The Lord of the Flies by William Golding was influenced by The Coral Island, with Golding taking a totally different view on how teenaged boys would behave if marooned.

herschelian said...

Whoops didn't mean to log in as anonymous!

Charles said...


Recently I read a novel by George MacDonald a Scottsman writing in the late 1800's. It was edited by Michael R. Phillips. I don't know if the edit made the novel better or worse. MacDonald is/was apparently a pretty big name in Scottish literature. The novel, not a kid's book, is THE HIGHLANDER'S LAST SONG.

It was fairly readable once I got comfortable with the language and the somewhat slow pacing. I'm definately glad I read it.

From the front cover: "He was faced with choices which would determine not only his own future but that of his whole clan." He being the chief or laird of the clan.

Some romance involved. A bit of humor.

Anyone ever heard of this guy? Read any of his novels?

Bybee said...

You are my queen of obscure writers and books, so I'm thrilled to be able to lay someone new at your feet.

Carrie K,
Cool, you've read Ballantyne! LOL re: imagining Mr and Mrs. B at home.

I never thought of a Lord of the Flies connection.

Good on you for discovering someone new and obscure!

herschelian said...

Charles - George MacDonald is better known to me as George MacDonald Fraser. The Higlander's Last Song was originally titled "What's Mine's Mine" and is one of his few books for adults - I have not read it. However as a girl I did read the two most famous of his books for children: "At the Back of the North Wind" and "The Princess and Curdie". GMF was a famous Christian writer of his time, and he was friend/mentor to Lewis Caroll. His books influenced many other writers, particularly J.R.Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

Eva said...

Haven't heard of him, but he sounds like fun! :D As does your brother's bookcase!

Charles said...

Bybee: Thanks for the "pat on the back."

Hershelian: Thanks for the info on George MacDonald Fraser. Very interesting. My oldest son is a big fan of C.S. Lewis, so I'll pass that info on to him.

I have a grandson who just turned
7. I wonder if GMF's childrens books are still available.

Anonymous said...

I thought the epitome of open-mindedness closed the door to prejudices and presupposions? I'm so encouraged that you were able to enjoy such a literary treasures as are found in Ballantyne in spite of the religious overtones you preconceived to be as a hinderance. We should all learn from that example. Ballantyne has been the author that has spurned my son into ravenous reading. A note...most paperback versions purchased online are an abridged version which excludes the Christian worldview from the story. Purchase the real deal or you truly lose the heart of the author.