Nov. 13, 2011

Simply Lit

by Malena Morling

Often toward evening,
after another day, after
another year of days,
in the half dark on the way home
I stop at the food store
and waiting in line I begin
to wonder about people—I wonder
if they also wonder about how
strange it is that we
are here on the earth.
And how in order to live
we all must sleep.
And how we have beds for this
(unless we are without)
and entire rooms where we go
at the end of the day to collapse.
And I think how even the most
lively people are desolate
when they are alone
because they too must sleep
and sooner or later die.
We are always looking to acquire
more food for more great meals.
We have to have great meals.
Isn't it enough to be a person buying
a carton of milk? A simple
package of butter and a loaf
of whole wheat bread?
Isn't it enough to stand here
while the sweet middle-aged cashier
rings up the purchases?
I look outside,
but I can't see much out there
because now it is dark except
for a single vermilion neon sign
floating above the gas station
like a miniature temple simply lit
against the night.

"Simply Lit" by Malena Mörling, from Astoria. © University of Pittsburg Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of St. Augustine (books by this author), born in Thagaste, in what is now Algeria (354). He said, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

It's the birthday of writer Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh (1850). His books include Treasure Island (1883), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Kidnapped (1886).

The inspiration for Treasure Island came on a rainy day in the Scottish Highlands when Stevenson's stepson was idling away the time by drawing pictures. He drew a map, and Stevenson saw it and immediately decided that it was a pirate map — he embellished it and named it "Treasure Island." Stevenson told his stepson that there was buried treasure there, and someone had been marooned on the island. His stepson begged to know the rest of the story, so Stevenson started writing it out — within three days he had three chapters. He worked with his stepson's input, including the boy's request that there wouldn't be any girls in the book.

Treasure Island is the story of young Jim Hawkins, whose parents run an inn in a small English town. One of their long-term lodgers is a sailor man named Billy Bones, who admits to Jim that he used to be a crew member for the now-dead pirate Captain Flint. Bones says that his fellow crew members are hunting him down because they want something that is in his sea chest. One of them eventually shows up and presents Bones with the "black spot," the pirate death sentence, and threatens to return that night; Bones falls dead of shock. Jim and his mother open his sea chest to collect their back rent, and instead, find the map for Treasure Island. Jim takes the map to two rich gentlemen, who excitedly recognize it as the map to the treasure of Captain Flint, and organize an expedition to go find the treasure.

Unfortunately for the well-intentioned but naïve gentlemen, they end up hiring all of Captain Flint's pirate crew, plus one trustworthy captain. So Jim, Captain Smollett, and the gang of pirates — headed by Long John Silver, the ship's cook, and his parrot known as Captain Flint — set out for Treasure Island.

Jim overhears the pirates planning a mutiny, and tells Captain Smollett. On the shores of Treasure Island, they meet yet another member of Flint's crew, Ben Gunn, who has been marooned there. Both the pirates and Smollett want to get the treasure and then take hold of the ship; but the pirates are also plotting against Long John Silver. Jim is trying to outmaneuver them all and save the day. They finally make it to the treasure, only to find that it isn't there — Ben Gunn has already found it.

In the end, Jim, Smollett, Ben Gunn, and Long John Silver head home with the treasure — but Silver ends up stealing some and escaping into the sunset. Treasure Island ends with Jim as an old man summing up his adventures: "Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!'"

The plot for Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream. He was yelling in his sleep, and so his wife shook him awake, and he immediately informed her that he wished she hadn't — he was dreaming part of a story. He wrote and rewrote it in several weeks while he was in bed with tuberculosis, and when it was published — just a few months after he had first dreamed it up — it was an immediate success.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins: "Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life."

The story begins with Utterson hearing a shocking bit of news: that a man named Edward Hyde has assaulted a young girl, but has paid off her family with a check from a prominent and respected citizen, Henry Jekyll. The reason for Utterson's shock is that Jekyll is his friend and client, and he has recently written Mr. Hyde into his will.

When Utterson mentions Hyde to Jekyll, he makes his friend uncomfortable. For a while, nothing more happens. Then one of Utterson's clients is murdered, and a maid identifies the murderer as Hyde, but Hyde has disappeared. Jekyll produces a note from Hyde saying that he is gone forever. The links between Hyde and Jekyll continue to add up, but Utterson does not understand the connection. A mutual friend dies and leaves Utterson a note that the lawyer is not allowed to read until after Dr. Jekyll's death.

Then one day, a servant of Dr. Jekyll's comes to find Utterson and tells him that his master has disappeared into his laboratory, and keeps sending the servant on bizarre errands for a drug. The servant thinks that someone has murdered Jekyll and is hiding in his laboratory. He and Utterson break in. They find Hyde's dead body, but no trace of Jekyll.

They do find a note left behind, and Utterson opens it, along with the one from his friend. He learns the whole story: that, of course, the respected Dr. Jekyll and the monstrous Mr. Hyde are the same person. As a young man, Jekyll was fascinated by the thought that both good and evil exist in every person, and he went to work in his laboratory to figure out a way to isolate his evil self. At first, the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde came about with the use of a drug. Eventually, it started to happen spontaneously, and he could not control it; finally Jekyll could not stand it any longer and committed suicide. He wasn't sure what would happen to Hyde, but Hyde had died along with him.

Kidnapped is set in 1751, the era of the Jacobite uprisings in Scotland. In general, Jacobitism was the attempt to secure the Stuart kings to the British throne. In the case of the Scottish highlands, it was mostly an attempt to keep English influence out and let the clans stay in control, and the Stuarts were more sympathetic to the clans than King George, from the House of Hanover.

Kidnapped is the story of the orphaned boy Davie Balfour, who sets off to find his uncle. His uncle is a sinister drunk ruling over a decrepit estate, the House of Shaws. Davie realizes that his father was older than his uncle, and that Davie himself is actually the rightful heir of the estate. He asks his uncle about it, who tries and fails to have him killed, but succeeds in having him kidnapped. Davie is put on a ship bound for America, where he will be an indentured servant. The ship turns around in bad weather, and off the coast of Scotland, it hits another boat. Everyone on board this second boat is killed except for one man, a Jacobite rebel named Alan Breck. Davie overhears the crew plotting to kill Alan, so he and Alan turn on the rest of the crew and fight them off; but the two are separated trying to get to shore, and Davie ends up in the Scottish Highlands.

Eventually, Davie reunites with Alan, but it's at the scene of a crime — one of King George's tax collectors is assassinated, a man who is also a member of the enemy Campbell clan. Alan is accused, and he and Davie flee together through the Highlands. They end up in the secret den of an outlaw Jacobite leader, Cluny Macpherson, one of the many historical figures sprinkled throughout the novel. They have many more adventures — a duel between Alan and his arch-nemesis turns into a bagpipe contest; Alan forces Davie to pretend that he is a dying nobleman to convince a pretty girl to give them a ride across a river; and in the end, they manage to get Davie's inheritance back from his uncle, and Alan heads to France to seek refuge from the English.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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