Five on a Treasure Island is an important book. It’s the first book of what is probably Enid Blyton’s most famous series, The Famous Five. It’s so important we have more than a dozen posts dedicated to it already, and it’s mentioned in many others. We have reviewed the TV series episodes, analysed the text for changes made in modern editions, reviewed the abridged and unabridged audiobooks and yet we have never reviewed the book itself. Until now.
WHEN I HAD TIME TO READ, READ, READ
When I was a child (longer ago than I like to remember!) I used to read tons. I would read and re-read my favourites over and over. I loved to pick a series and devour it over a week or two. I must have read the Famous Five start to finish dozens of times or more. And of course, that always started with Five On a Treasure Island. It’s one of my favourite Fives (in fact it’s my third favourite, if you want to be precise).
According to Goodreads I last read it in December 2016 but that was the unabridged (but slightly edited) audiobook, and before that it was when I compared the texts in 2013/14. So I haven’t properly read it since before 2012 which is when I started using Goodreads.
Reading a book for a review is always a different beast than just reading for fun, and reading it to assess for updates is barely like reading it at all. If I was just reading it I would get lost and stop really seeing the words, I would zone out and just see the pictures in my head for a good while. Reading for a review means stopping every so often and staring into space while I come up with clever and witty comments for a blog, which I inevitably forget by the time I sit down to write.
Anyway, I have read it. And now I will review it.
WHERE DO I START?
I thought reviewing an old favourite would be easy. It’s not. As I said I’ve read it countless times. I know bits of it off by heart – though funnily I perhaps paid more attention this time and there were small bits that surprised me with their unfamiliarity. Perhaps I have always skimmed those bits to get to my favourite lines! Apart from those little anomalies it’s incredibly familiar and comforting and I think it’s fair to say that I take it entirely for granted. It’s Five On a Treasure Island. It’s that chunky red hardback with the old-book smell that I used to think was the smell of adventure. Its pages are full of old friends that I love to spend time with. Julian’s smart, capable and sensible, George is fiery, brave and independent, Anne is sweet, cheerful and find the joy in everything. Dick is witty, optimistic and usually hungry, and Timmy is faithful, brave and loyal.
The children don’t change all that much through the series. Some corners are knocked off, Anne gets a little braver and George a little less prickly, but we are introduced to them all at the start of this book. In fact George and Timmy are introduced to the others too, as despite being cousins they’ve never met. Let’s start there.
Imagine having cousins you’ve never met, for no apparent reason. Well that’s what the Kirrins suddenly discover, one morning in the school holidays. It only comes up because they’re looking for somewhere to go on holiday, and Daddy suggests that his brother’s wife would he happy to take them for some extra money.
The children comment how odd it is that they have a cousin they’ve never seen, and have to ask her name and age. Even the adults have to think about it a bit. Georgina is 11, the same age as Dick, a little older than Anne and a little younger than Julian. And as a girl, she’ll balance out the group.
Their idea of her is that she will be a little odd, as an only child and they feel sorry for her perceived loneliness. They also think she will fit in perfectly with them as she balances out the boy/girl ratio and is the right age.
As it turns out they are both completely right and rather wrong at the same time.
George is certainly ‘odd’ at first view. She doesn’t turn up to meet her cousins at first, and one of the first things she says to Anne is:
I’m not Georgina… I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl.
That may be unrelated to being an only child, but the loneliness is not. I don’t think she garners much sympathy in person, mind you. She is quite rude and abrupt (perhaps just trying to protect a more sensitive nature than she lets on) to her cousins, and the impression is she is the same to any local children. She believes she is better off on her own, or at least just her and Timmy. With Timmy keeping her company she isn’t quite as lonely as you’d think, and in good weather she must keep busy out with him in her boat and on her island (it’s not clear but I presume she goes to a local day-school, as after this book Uncle Quentin says he can finally send her to a good school).
In the end she does fit in perfectly with the other three but it is a bit of a rocky start. Being nice and friendly children the other three start to break down George’s walls. They tell her she can go off on her own and they won’t tell tales and they praise her mother which starts her softening to them. Quickly she learns that she does have things to share – Timmy, her island and wreck – so she can accept ice-creams and things from her cousins and a much more amicable relationship begins.
Kirrin is one of my favourite fictional locations ever. It has a lovely sandy beach with water you can swim in, and even better it has a private island complete with ruined castle. I love exploring ruins and having your own would be wonderful. In the height of summer, when the book is set, it’s such an idyllic place. Perfect for lounging on the beach, paddling, boating and picnics. The fact that no-one (or, at least very few people) can navigate the rocky sea to reach Kirrin Island just makes it that bit more secret and exciting.
THREE LEVELS OF ADVENTURE
To me, this book has three definite stages. They are all adventurous, just to different levels.
There is the early portion of the book where the excitement comes simply from the cousins meeting and Julian Dick and Anne exploring Kirrin. There’s enough friction between George and the others, plus the secret of Timmy which is nearly spilled, to keep it interesting above and beyond the simple pleasure of exploration.
Next the adventure ramps up, as George’s great-great-great-grandfather’s wreck is thrown up by a violent storm. This is exciting in itself, and becomes even more so when they explore it and find a treasure map. The promise of hunting for gold ingots on the island surely would be adventurous enough for a book, but no, there’s more.
The final level of adventure has the Five up against some nasty crooks who also want the gold. So instead of just a hurried treasure hunt (they need to find the gold before the island is sold) Julian and George are captured and held prisoner, Dick mounts a daring rescue and they have to foil the baddies’ plans.
I’m not going to get into too much of what goes on in future books, I’ll leave that for when I’ve read them, but there are a few things that people always discuss when it comes to the Famous Five. One is the name Kirrin.
In this book we know that:
a) George, her mother and father are all Kirrins.
b) The house, island and farm are all called Kirrin
c) The above plus, previously, the surrounding land belonged to George’s mother’s family.
d) Julian and George’s fathers are brothers.
e) Julian’s father has only the vaguest recollections of Kirrin and presumably has not spent much time there.
This doesn’t instantly cause any problems as we must just assume that Quentin took his wife’s name to keep the connection with the area. However, later books seem to contradict this.
Uncle Quentin is an interesting character, and a bit of a contradiction. I know that everyone has flaws and can’t be clever all the time but he really isn’t very smart in this book. He is supposedly an extremely clever scientist, and I can overlook him not making much money as all he does is write books, and I can completely get the notion that he’s brilliant at his work but useless at remembering meal-times and so on. However, he is surely completely idiotic to sell the island all of a sudden, without ever having looked at what the children found on the wreck. Also the fact he takes an afternoon nap and sleeps through Julian nicking the box from the wreck just strikes me as quite un-Quentin like based on other books where he is more or less a work-aholic. But I suppose all that is important for the plot. If he had said ‘no’ to the sale, the children would have been in less of a rush to find the gold and perhaps the men would have carried it off before they found it. And that wouldn’t have been a Blytonian ending, now, would it?
So there you have it, my first proper Famous Five review. Sometime soon I’ll do Five Go Adventuring Again.