Book review

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne (1858)

There seem to be all kinds of desert islands that you could be washed up on. You could be unlucky and find yourself on a barren cay with no fresh water and no vegetation. Or, you could be lucky and find yourself in a glorious kind of playground where all kinds of delicious foods are there for the taking, there are beautiful coral pools to dive in and you have leisure time to explore your own island.

Ralph Rover, Jack Martin and Peterkin Gay are lucky. Ship's boys, they are washed up alone on their coral island after a storm at sea. What a dream! These boys have a wonderful time discovering all that the island has to offer:

The ground at the foot of this tree was thickly strewn with the fallen fruit, in the midst of which lay sleeping, in every possible attitude, at least twenty hogs of all ages and sizes, apparently quite surfeited with a recent banquet.
Jack and I could scarce restrain our laughter as we gazed at these coarse, fat, ill-looking animals, while they lay groaning and snoring heavily amid the remains of their supper.
'Now, Ralph,' said Jack, in a low whisper, 'put a stone in your sling - a good big one - and let fly at that fat fellow with his back toward you. I'll try to put an arrow into yon little pig.'
'Don't you think we had better put them up first?' I whispered; it seems cruel to kill them while asleep.'
'If I wanted sport Ralph, I would certainly set them up; but as we only want pork, we'll let them lie. Besides, we're not sure of killing them; so fire away.'
Thus admonished, I slung my stone with so good aim that it went bang against the hog's flank as if against the head of a drum; but it had no other effect than that of causing the animal to start to its feet, with a frightful yell of surprise, and scamper away. At the same instant Jack's bow twanged and the arrow pinned the little pig to the ground by the ear.

Well, they need a bit of practice, but they do get rather good at arranging pork for supper.

There follows a peaceful interval of a few months when Ralph Rover and the boys settle down to an idyllic life. They play and fish in the pools and explore thoroughly the whole of the island making various strange discoveries. They build a boat and sail to the island of penguins, and, one day, see the war canoes approach ...

I noticed that a shade of anxiety crossed Jack's countenance as he gazed long and intently at the two objects, which were now nearing us fast. At last he sprang to his feet. 'They are canoes, Ralph! Whether war-canoes or not I cannot tell, but this I know, that all the natives of the South Sea Islands are fierce cannibals, and they have little respect for strangers. We must hide if they land here, which I earnestly hope they will not do.'

You must see for yourself how the boys deal with mad cannibals, but I can tell you that no sooner have they done that than bloodthirsty pirates descend onto the island! These are not so easy to deal with though and Ralph is abducted and taken off on a terrifying ordeal of his own.

Obviously, the book is crammed full of adventures of all kinds. It is slightly older, even, than Treasure Island and although I don't think you are very likely to find the style difficult, you may find it distracting. Or you may find it part of the entertainment - R M Ballantyne is very keen to tell us his views on various important issues. So, for example, he interrupts his discourse on penguins to ask you if you take a bath in the morning:

The feelings of freshness, of cleanliness, of vigour, and extreme hilarity, that always followed my bathes in the sea, and even, when in England, my ablutions in the wash-tub, were so delightful, that I would sooner have gone without my breakfast than without my bathe in cold water. My readers will forgive me for asking whether they are in the habit of bathing thus every morning; and if they answer 'No,' they will pardon me for recommending them to begin at once.

Reminds me a little of C S Forrester's Captain Hornblower who takes a turn under the deck-washing hand pump every morning. Not so bad in the tropics, but he does it in the Baltic as well!

What can I read next?

Obviously, if you haven't read it already, you could follow this book up with the classic by Robert Louis Stevenson:

And Leon Garfield wrote a brilliant pirate adventure:

Or the thrilling hunt for pirate treasure by Arthur Ransome:

Eric Campbell has written a real adventure, set on the ocean:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Coral Island features in these lists: