Could I have thrown the book out? Mistaken it for one to be given away, donated to the library, lent to a neighbor? The novel sat on my childhood bookshelf for years, untouched but never forgotten, a totem of a past time. I was ten years old the day I received R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, on Prize Day at the Corstorphine School in Edinburgh. I walked proudly to the front of the assembled students, dressed in a typical Scottish school uniform, an American boy transformed after a year with my family far from our home in New York. Even more important to me than the book itself was the certificate, pasted inside the front cover, given to recognize the prize I received on that day.
In its time, Ballantyne’s 1857 novel was a prime example of a boy’s adventure story, said to be one of the first books to feature a boy as the lead character. Narrated by Ralph Rover, the fifteen-year-old son in a family of sea-going men, it is the story of three boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific: the Coral Island. It’s given birth to many similar adventure stories—Treasure Island, Peter Pan—not to mention its more dystopian relative, Lord of the Flies, published a century later.
Unlike its 21st century descendants, there are no supernatural or magical forces at work, nor are the boys faced with the end of the world as we know it. And among Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin, our heroes, there is nothing but support, fairness, honesty, and respect. Less than halfway through the book, Ralph captures this (and captivated me): “…we three … although most unlike in many things, when united, made a trio so harmonious that I question if there ever met before such an agreeable triumvirate. There was, indeed, no note of discord whatever in the symphony we played together on that sweet Coral Island; and I am now persuaded that this was owing to our having been all tuned to the same key, namely, that of love!” In challenge after challenge, the boys look out for each other, with affection, humor, and true care. It is this lovely but romanticized view that William Golding apparently found objectionable—or at least unrealistic—and that he addressed with his more viciously tribal heroes in Lord of the Flies.
After reading some of the contemporary crop of adventure stories with my son—Harry Potter, the Magnus Chase series, Peter and the Starcatchers—I looked forward to sharing this prized possession and the magical childhood year it represents to me. But first I had to reread the book, decades after my first reading. It took a chapter or two to grasp the 19th century language, full of flourishes, double negatives, and other syntax of the era. I wondered if the novel would be difficult to work through with him, require too many explanations, its floridity taking away from the immediacy of the adventure.
Then, after a challenging but relatively idyllic hundred pages, the book turned dark, with a fierce native population, violent pirates and unscrupulous traders, death and redemption, before the boys join forces once again to escape the island. Given the author and the time period, I should been prepared for the overt racism that overwhelms the narrative, the endorsement of imperialism, the virulent idea that the native people are delivered from their natures—tamed—by Christianity that should have been offensive at any time but sounds particularly awful today.
A great deal has been written about confronting racism, antisemitism, sexism, bias of all kinds, in classic novels, much of it by commentators far more accomplished than I. We must confront the past, acknowledge history in the hope of broadening our understanding and how the forces at work in those times shaped so much of what we see and experience today. But in the end I decided there are better ways to discuss with my son issues of race and religion and cultural and political imperialism. Perhaps when he is a bit older, he will read it for himself, reach his own understanding. I returned the book to its place on my bookshelf. I cannot look at The Coral Island the same way, but it remains a totem of a special year in my life and the life of my family, a souvenir of a more naïve and innocent time.