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>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.


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