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Every now and again I enjoy re-discovering the books I enjoyed in my childhood. The Story of The Treasure Seekers is Edith Nesbitt's first book for children and it was published in 1899.
What is it about?
In this book we meet the Bastable family of Lewisham Road. The family is made up of six children and their widowed father. The children decide to restore their family's fallen fortunes and this book recounts the different ways they decide to search for treasure. These methods include such things as digging up the back garden, creating their own newspaper, becoming bandits for the day to "waylay an unwary traveller" who they can hold for ransom, inventing medicines to cure a cold and "rescuing an old gentleman in distress." The children's plans rarely work out exactly as they intended, allowing for some quite comic moments.
The style of the book
At the start of the book the narrator tells us: "It is one of us that tells the story - but I shall not tell you which. Only at the end perhaps I will." However, I don't think it will take most readers long to work out which of the Bastable children is telling the story. I'm sure this was intentional on Nesbitt's part. By making the narrator unable to resist singing the praises of one child in particular and occasionally saying 'I' instead of 'he' or 'she', the narrator quickly gives their identity away. Whilst I think it would be more fun for readers if the narrator's identity was not so easily sussed out, it is a way of communicating just how self-obsessed this particular child is and that they aren't as clever as they like to think. The child's pompous manner does become a bit annoying after a while but overall they don't come across as being unlikeable.
The linguistic style is very of its time and some of the dialogue may take a while for modern readers to get used to. At first the expressions used by the children sound quite archaic and their speech sounds overly formal. As the book progresses, however, this becomes part of its charm. The structure of the novel makes it very easy to keep track of the plot. Each chapter deals with a separate adventure associated with a different method of treasure seeking. This makes it easy to pick up the book, read a chapter and then return to it without struggling to pick up the thread. Another advantage is that it doesn't take very long for the action to start. There is no lengthy build-up. The actual searching for treasure gets underway very quickly. My daughter read this book and, although she took a bit of time to acclimatise to the writing style, which was very different to what she is used to, she found the book an entertaining read.
I love the way the book captures the astute, resourceful quality of the children but also their naivety. "Father was very ill after mother died and while he was ill his business partner went to Spain and there was never much money afterwards. I don't know why." We also see the way children tackle real-life problems from the adult world, such as financial difficulties, without losing their sense of childlike fun and magic. A lot of their treasure-hunting schemes arise from games and fantasies and stories they have read in books.
My thoughts on the book
There is something wonderfully nostalgic about this novel. It's hard to believe that children were once called Oswald and Horace Octavius rather than Kyle and Nathan. I realise that the names alone could prove too much for some modern readers to relate to, as are the many references to servants, knickerbockers, Latin prizes at prep school and old money. However, if a child has been studying the Victorian period at school, I feel that that would be a good time to introduce this book as an example of a story written for and about Victorian children. My daughter is interested in pre-decimal coins and she loved to read about half crowns, sixpences and sovereigns. Reading about the Bastable children's experiences, although fictional, will paint a picture of a very different era. For instance, the children don't go to school as their father cannot afford to send them anywhere. This means they have a lot of time on their hands and they obviously have to entertain themselves in an age long before television and computer games. Throughout the book we hear of the children playing shipwrecked mariners on top of the chicken house and pretending to hunt a bear in Greenwich Park. They may not get any pocket money but their imaginations are rich. This book sends out a positive message to children to be creative and resourceful and that there are some things that money can't buy.
As you might expect in a book from this era, gender stereotypes abound, which is quite irritating. "The girls wouldn't dig with spades that had cobwebs on them. Girls would never do for African explorers," one character says. Fortunately, my daughter is sufficiently enlightened just to roll her eyes at this and see it as another trait of the time, but I appreciate it isn't ideal. The chapter in which we meet the Indian uncle - referred to as 'the poor Indian' doesn't seem quite right either and is rather patronising in tone.
Victorian values are alive and well in this novel. The children have clear rules about what is considered honourable, polite and morally weak. They have a hatred of liars and 'snivellers.' They express their values in typically child-like ways - "it's wrong to be angry with people for not being so clever as you are yourself. It is not always their faults." Although the moral messages are clear, as you would expect in a Victorian novel, none of the Bastable children could be described as a goody two shoes. On the contrary, we see the children's faults. They quarrel a lot and their behaviour towards one boy in particular would probably be considered bullying by today's standards. Often the children reflect on their behaviour and regret what they have done and we see them making up after their fallings out.
At the beginning of the book, Edith Nesbitt includes the following dedication: "The Story of the Treasure Seekers is dedicated in memory of childhoods identical but for the accidents of time and space." Although at first blush this novel might seem worlds away from the experience of children today, some things don't change. Children have always had to cope with bad situations by drawing on their creativity and tackling problems in a spirited way. Adults cannot always be around to keep children entertained and this is a refreshing tale of what children can do under their own steam, albeit somewhat far-fetched at times.
Would I recommend this?
It depends on the child. A confident reader with an interest in the Victorian era might like this, especially if it ties in with school topic work. I also feel it is a good book to read aloud to children as a bed time story. (This gives you the option of editing out any stereotypes, or at least discussing them with the child, along the lines of - "how silly to think girls would be afraid of cobwebs!") You can buy the paperback new from £0.68 from sellers at Amazon. If you have a Kindle you can download it free. It's certainly a fun read for anyone aged 10 and upwards. For my part, I loved it. They just don't write them like this anymore. I suppose in some respects, that's a good thing, but in other respects I don't think you can ever go too far wrong with six plucky kids and a dog.
When their father's business fails, the six Bastable children decide to restore the family fortunes. But although they think of many ingenious ways to do so, their well meant efforts are either more fun than profitable, or lead to trouble...