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The Coral Island

The Coral Island, R.M. Ballantyne
(London: The Thames Publishing Company )
Various reprints
Ages 10+

I first discovered Ballantyne while rummaging through old bookshops in Scotland. I could tell his books were adventure stories for boys, and they appeared to be the sort I was looking for (in the vein of other boys adventures from the Victorian era). However, I did not know the author and therefore I did not use my meager funds to buy any of his books. Then one day I searching for information about him on the web, I encountered a modern literary critic discussing Ballantyne. When this critic sought to apologize for Ballantyne’s “Puritanism” I knew I had to give him a try! Eventually I was able to purchase several of his books, and to read a couple.

This volume is the first one I have read to my boys. It starts slowly so their interest was not aroused immediately. This was aggravated by the fact that the wording is often difficult- the phrasing is different and we typically encountered a couple of word each night that I did not know. It is not unusual for us to encounter words the boys may not know. I will either change the word on the fly or stop and explain the word. However, in this book I found myself stumped. Considering this book was extremely popular with boys about 150 years ago, it serves as a critique of our current setting!

Once the book got going, my boys (ages 11, 9, 7) really enjoyed it (my five year old paid some attention). It is a great tale of adventure, suspense, courage, pluck, determination, etc. These were the qualities that endeared the book to me when I originally read it. The boys in the book are stranded on an island and have to provide for themselves. They work hard, innovate, and enjoy and study nature. Eventually when they encounter others they stand for right and risk their lives for an innocent woman. In doing this they explicitly state that their chivalrous actions are simply an outworking of the gospel. The story gives a good basis for encouraging boys to be active, to persevere and to solve problems rather than whining or looking for easy ways out.

Humility is also encouraged by the way the story is told. Typically in such stories the main character is the brave, heroic one. However, in this story, while the main character is a good example, one of the other boys is the strongest and smartest. Thus the narrator is often acknowledging the abilities of another.

In addition Ballantyne is explicit about the importance of the gospel. As the boys encounter pirates and savage natives they see evil up close. In one part, Ralph, the main character is surprised to see that the savage pirate captain is gracious to some missionaries. The dialogue which followed is worth quoting:

“Why, Dick, you must be new to these seas if you don’t know that,” cried another. “The captain cares as much for the Gospel as you do. (an’ that’s precious little), but he knows, and everybody knows, that the only place among the southern islands where a ship can put in and get what she wants in comfort is where the Gospel has been sent to. There are hundreds o’ islands, at this blessed moment, where you might as well jump straight into a shark’s maw as land without a band o’ thirty comrades armed to the teeth to back you.”

“Ay, said a man with a deep scar over his right eye, Dick’s new to the work. But if the captain takes us for a cargo o’ sandal-wood to the Fijis. He’ll get a taste o’ these black gentry in their native condition. For my part, I don’t know and I don’t care what the Gospel does to them, but I know that when any o’ the islands chance to get it, trade goes all smooth and easy; but where they haint got it, Beelzebub himself could hardly desire better company.”

“Well, you ought to be a good judge,” cried another, laughing, “for you’ve never kept any company but the worst all your life!”
“Ralph Rover!” shouted a voice down the hatchway, “captain wants you aft.”
Springing up the ladder, I hastened to the cabin, pondering as I went the strange testimony borne by these men to the effect of the Gospel on savage natures’ testimony which, as it was perfectly disinterested, I had not doubt whatever was strictly true.” (160-161)

Late similar statements are made:

“As for the missionaries, the captain favors them because they are useful to him. The South Sea islanders are such incarnate fiends they are better of[f] being tamed, and the missionaries are the only men who can do it.” (161)

“we find that wherever the savages take up with Christianity they always give over their cannibalism and are safe to be trusted.” (166)

These are great statements about the power of the gospel and the importance of the gospel for the world. Ballantyne is careful not to suggest that only the natives are in need of grace, however. For example, when the boys encounter a native missionary, the missionary does not take it for granted that these boys are converted. Ralph relates:

“[he] exhorted us to consider that our souls were certainly in as great a danger as those of the wretched heathen whom we pitied so much, if we had not already found salvation in Jesus Christ. “Nay, further,” he added, “if such be your unhappy case, you are, in the sight of God, much worse than these savages (forgive me, my young friends for saying so): for they have no knowledge, no light, and do not profess to believe; while you on the contrary, have been brought up in the light of the blessed gospel, and call yourself Christians. These poor savages are indeed the enemies of our Lord; but you, if you be not true believers, are traitors!'” (223)

Chapter 27 also has a touching evangelistic scene as Ralph, the main character, comforts a dying pirate who sees the error of his ways. It is well done because the pirate is sure the gospel promises are not for him, and Ralph tries to explain the gospel calling for him to repent and believe. The portrayal is realistic and thoughtful. It opens the door for good conversations about the gospel with your children.

Ballantyne, a man of his time like of all of us, does at times sound condescending to the people of the South Seas. There are places where I modified his language in reading.

This is a challenging book to read, but it is a good one combining as it does courage and adventure with such a strong missionary impulse.

Note: Vision Forum has begun reprinting Ballantyne’s novels. They have a nicely bound copy of Coral Island.

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