Editor’s Note: Click here for Part 1 in this ongoing series on the best book for boys.

“The round-house was like a shambles; three were dead inside, another lay in his death agony across the threshold; and there were Alan and I victorious and unhurt.   He came up to me with open arms.  ‘Come to my arms!’ he cried, and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. ‘David,’ said he, ‘I love you like a brother.  And O, man,’ he cried in a kind of ecstasy, ‘am I no’ a bonny fighter?’  Thereupon he turned to the four enemies, passed his sword clean through each of them, and tumbled them out of doors one after the other.”

Thus ended “the siege of the round-house” onboard the brig Covenant in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and the beginning of David Balfour’s journey from boy to man. That transition would involve much more than holding his own in a deadly scrape: manning the pistols against those coming in through the back door and the skylight, whilst Alan Breck Stewart’s massive sword dispatched those attacking the front. In the adventures to come, young David would learn that men and causes do not neatly fit into a fairy tale dichotomy of good vs. evil. The author Stevenson here employs his trademark character device – the “beloved scoundrel” – whose tumultuous relationship with David provides the vehicle by which our young protagonist evolves.

Stevenson ripped the character Alan Breck Stewart from the pages of actual Scottish history, and he is the personal embodiment of the virtues and vices of the Jacobite cause. The story takes place in the years immediately following the last battle fought on British soil, Culloden, and the last of the Stewart attempts to regain the British throne led by the figure known to historians as “The Young Pretender” and to romantics as “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

If such details of British history seem arcane to us, imagine an American youth whose path to manhood includes a serious study of our own Civil War.  He would learn that before 1861 most Americans thought of themselves as Virginians, Carolinians, Pennsylvanians, etc. The modern unifying concept of “American” would be a product of that war. Our young man would understand Lee’s personal dilemma; he simply could not raise his sword against his own beloved Virginia. He would understand that, of course slavery was a catalyst for secession, but most of the Confederate ranks were filled by brave boys who simply viewed the North as foreigners invading their homeland.

As Kidnapped progresses, David begins to appreciate the better qualities of the Jacobites he is forcefully thrown in with – not only their courage, loyalty and sense of personal honor, but also their famous hospitality, and so he muses; “If these are the wild Highlanders, I could wish my own folks wilder.”  (Again, if the ways of the Scottish highlander escape the modern American, then recall the Godfather movies; for there is much similarity between the old Sicilian ways and that of the Scottish clans – family honor is not just something – it’s everything.)  

As for his indispensable friend Alan, while he frowns upon the Jacobite cause (often making plain his loyalty to King George) and looks with a jaundiced eye upon Alan’s methods; he begrudges him at least this much: “Alan’s morals were all tail-first; but he was ready to give his life for them, such as they were.”  One is reminded of Grant’s attitude towards the defeated Confederates after the surrender:

“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…”

A man can admire another man’s courage and integrity without swallowing that man and his cause whole. Such is the discernment young David acquires.

The story is sprinkled throughout with other lessons, such as when he is embarrassed by his own fear at having to jump over raging waters, and Alan shores him up; both physically and with these words; “To be feared of a thing and yet to do it, is what makes the prettiest kind of a man.” After  realizing that he could have walked to the mainland at every low tide and yet had stranded himself upon a desolate island for a couple of days, David chastises himself: “I have seen wicked men and fools, a great many of both; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.”

There is though, something sad to consider. Stevenson wrote Kidnapped explicitly for school boys: “This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter evening school-room when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near….” Yet modern literacy has so far fallen that today even a fairly well-read adult might find the prose and the vocabulary stumbling blocks. Near the end of the book the family lawyer verifies David’s identity – his appearance indicated nothing but a vagabond – by throwing out snatches of Latin (which Stevenson does not bother to translate) that a middle-class, lowland Scottish boy, reasonably educated, would understand. David instantly recognizes his Horace, and throws back a few words in Latin of his own.

So as we seek to remedy the dearth of literature appealing to young boys today, let us at the same time raise up their abilities with language and their grasp of their place in history; for as Winston Churchill proved, when mobilized properly those are the most powerful  tools – and weapons – upon the face of the earth.


Click here for Part 3 of the series.

David Churchill Barrow is a regular Liberty Island contributor and along with his wife, MaryLu Barrow, is the author of the young adult novella Silver and Lead.