Saturday, July 30, 2016

Finding deeper meaning in the Story of the Treasure Seekers

I'm a big fan of A. E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy. It's one of the cornerstones of modern children's fantasy, even if I have to always look up how to spell Psammead. So I decided I needed to read more Nesbit. After all, so much of what she wrote is now public domain so I really have no excuse.

So I decided to read her first children's book, The Story of the Treasure Seekers.

To be honest, I found it fairly tough going at first.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers doesn't have any fantastic elements. Instead, it describes how the six Bastable children look for pocket money after their mother dies and their father's business is almost defrauded out of existence. Through a combination of having too much imagination and less common sense than the average brick, their various plans, which include selling wine, making patent medicines and becoming bandits, result in wacky hijinks. 

And here's where I started having problems. The family is in serious shape. Their mother is dead and their dad is clearly on the verge of bankruptcy but the kids seemed to never stop being jolly and silly. And with six of them, the oldest ones, at least, should have some kind of clue.

Looking back at the first chapter, the youngest Bastable is eight. Yeah, these kids are definitely too old to not to realize how serious their family situation is.

However, two things made me end up making an alternate interpretation to their silliness. One is that the narrator, Oswald, is a hysterically blatant unreliable narrator. That puts their whole jolly attitude in question.

And, here and there, there are little comments that make it clear that the Bastables don't want to talk about or even think about their dead mother. It also becomes clear that many of the adults who they encounter deeply pity them.

I found myself reading the Treasure Hunters not as the misadventures of six somewhat dim and possibly deranged kids but as six kids who are deeply traumatized and desperately trying to cope with the way their entire world has fallen apart. Not nearly as funny. Actually kind of dark, really. However, it made the kids a lot more sympathetic for me. 

Seriously, I slogged through the first three and a half chapters. Found it dreadful and put the book down for months. Picked the book up again, came to my alternate interpretation and blazed through the rest of the book in a sitting. Heck, it's really not an alternate interpretation. It's all clearly there.

With that in mind, the theme that now comes through the book is family. Through all of their trials and tribulations, the Bastables hold together as family. In the end, they resolve their problems by bringing their uncle into their family.

The Story of the Treasure Hunters is not going to be one of my favorite Nesbit books but it did have more layers and depth than I was prepared to credit it at first.

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