The Last Bookaneer.
I read this book several weeks ago, but it’s taken me this long to write the review because it turns out a huge chunk of the book is set in Samoa and I needed a few weeks to distance myself from that fact before I could accurately judge. Because Samoa gets my feelings going for sure. Basically, this is me when every someone brings up Samoa, ever:
Okay, so a little background (slash warning for what’s the come in this post): I used to live in Samoa. I moved there to teach high school students Earth Science and Marine Science for one year. Here are some of my hooligans (and they are hooligans, but I love them immensely):
In Samoa, I fell in love (with the Samoan people, with a specific person, with the islands, with the whole culture, with Polynesia, with my students–it was ridiculous, all the feels.) I came home after my one year of teaching was over and spent an entire summer spontaneously bursting into tears because I missed Samoa so much, until my parents got sick of me and kicked me out of their house and halfway across the Pacific Ocean back to my little island. They did this lovingly, and they did it even though they did NOT want me to move to the actual opposite side of the globe again. Because my parents rock and know me better than I know myself.
Ahem. Sorry. Got a little “I love evvvvvryone” there for a second.
Anyway, I ended up moving back to my little island chain in the South Pacific and signing a contract with the government to teach for another two years. Full disclosure: I am palagi. This is the Samoan word for white person. Because I am white. So very, very, very white. Possibly the whitest person ever, I discovered once I had my first of many battles between my skin and the equatorial sun. Oh, how I would have killed for some melanin! I would post a picture of my sunburnt self but I think I deleted them because they were so horrific. It was bad. And they don’t sell sunscreen often in Samoa, because, well, they don’t use it. So this was an ongoing struggle.
But I digress. I bring this up because although I am, in fact, aware that I am palagi, I am so so so so Samoan at heart. I jump head first into that wonderful culture…learned the language:
immersed myself in village life:
attended church (a big thing there now, although in the time of The Last Bookaneer, Christianity was not really a thing yet):
I became so immersed that even Samoans forgot I was palagi and would do things like forget to speak English to me, make jokes that only Samoans understood to me, physically abused me (slapstick physical comedy involving violence to their nearest and dearest is how Samoans show their love so you know you’ve been truly accepted once they start hitting you and laughing hysterically haha), and generally treated me like I had always lived there. The night I left, my “boys” (I accidentally joined a Samoan gang) showed up at the airport with a t shirt they made me and a song they composed to sing for me (all Samoans can sing. All of them. Not exaggerating. It gives you goosebumps.)
If you want a sample of the amazing, impromptu singing ability of Samoans, watch this video of Samoan wild land firefighters singing as they come down a mountain in California after being sent there to help with wildfires: Singing Samoan Firefighters
Long story short: my heart (lotu) is half Samoan. So it’s really hard for me to read or speak about Samoa without getting really excited and/or really homesick. Because that place felt more like home to me than anywhere else I have ever lived–tied with the Pennsylvania Appalachians, where I grew up and love immensely. So I apologize in advance for the many Samoan tangents that are about to happen in this review (like this one.)
So, the book!
The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl. Here it is:
Real talk: I picked this book up because I though the title was fun and the cover is so cool. But I have a habit of only reading the first paragraph of a cover synopsis because I feel like there are often spoilers at the end of the synopsis. In this case, by not reading the full synopsis I missed the crucial (to me) sentence “On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel.” So I went into this book having no idea the large majority of it would be set in Samoa. Surprise!
Just so you know, here is Samoa:
Yeah. It’s really in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A tiny dot in a big ol’ sea. Just to give you some perspective.
“Amber, that’s enough about Samoa, what the heck is the plot of this book?!”
Right. One more photo first just because I never get to share them.
Basically, this book is about the demise of the Bookaneers, a small and elite group of people who try to stick it to the huge publishing companies by stealing manuscripts and publishing them before the companies can–and make a profit, of course. It’s set in the last decade of the 1800s, primarily in London and Samoa. Bookaneers believe they are helping the average person in the world by making books accessible to all, so they go around the world and do things like steal Mary Shelley’s lost Frankenstein notes before they are sold to the highest bidder. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about the whole concept of bookaneers. As a book lover, I found their actions dubious at best. But I also live in a time and place where books are cheap and easy to get, so who knows what kind of desperate things I would have done to get my hands on my favorite author’s books back before it was easy to do so. Regardless of my personal feelings about the bookaneers themselves, this book was fun to read just for the adventure of it all. There are several bookaneers featured in the story, but there are really four main characters, three of them fiction, one a real life historic figure.
A (really) brief rundown of the characters: Pen Davenport, one of the most elite Bookaneers. Mr. Fergins, bookseller from London who ends up working for Davenport. Mr Clover, a young black railroad porter who loves reading and whom Mr Fergins slips free books to on the sly. And finally, the starring character in my opinion: Robert Louis Stevenson, real life author of such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The whole plot of the novel Mr Fergins telling Mr Clover the story of he and Davenport going to Samoa to steal Robert Louis Stevenson’s last, great manuscript before Stevenson dies. (He died at age 44 in Samoa.)
Robert Louis Stevenson was a really interesting character. If you don’t know anything about him, you should look him up. He was born into a family of well-known lighthouse engineers. The “lighthouse Stevensons” were famous for constructing impossible lighthouses all around the British Isles, most famously the Bell Rock lighthouse 11 miles of the coast of Scotland, built in the middle of the dang sea. Despite being absolutely pounded by waves 24/7, it was so well built in 1807 that it hasn’t had to be replaced or modified, ever. It would certainly be a lonely station for a lighthouse keeper, not that they all weren’t of course.
Robert Louis Stevenson was the oddball of the family, who wanted to write stories instead of design lighthouses. He was a total boss, honestly. People such as Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Conan Doyle admitted to having admired his writing greatly. And he had a great face for a storyteller. Check him out:
Stevenson was also really sick: it’s commonly said that he had tuberculosis, but modern doctors think it may have been a different, chronic lung ailment. Whatever it was, it caused him to move in search of “better climate” frequently. That’s how he ended up in Samoa: he was searching for a warmer climate in the hope that his illness would abate. And Samoa got it’s hooks in him, because that is what Samoa does. He ended building a house there and living there the rest of his life. The house is the main location for the second half of The Bookaneer. His house was called Vailima (five rivers in Samoan).
Here’s his house back in the 1800s:
And here it is now (looking way more fancy than it did back then):
By contrast, here’s a traditional Samoan fale (open sided house) where I stayed once upon a time.
When it comes down to it, my favorite thing about this book is all the research the author obviously put into it regarding Samoa. He was really spot on about a lot of things.
…tropical heat is oppressive in a unique way. It consumes you entirely. It seems to enter the skin and eyes, to crawl under the hair and nails; it becomes part of you and takes your breath. I’d learn there are only two Samoan seasons: hot and dry, and hot and rainy.
This is just truest thing ever said about Samoa. It’s hot. Really, really, really hot. All the time. So hot. Matthew Pearl, the author, has to have been to Samoa. He got the details of the place so right. He speaks of the ‘ava ceremony, which I witnessed a few times when I lived there:
He also did a really good job with his characterization of Stevenson. It’s a tricky thing to bring a real life person in as a character in a fictional book and not ruin their historic substance, but Pearl does it really well. Stevenson was popular in Samoa. A large part of this stems from the fact that he was a very well-known writer even then, and there are few things more valuable in Samoa culture than the ability to tell a story. That’s how they hand down their history, through oral storytelling. Stevenson was one of them in that aspect, and he got a Samoan name to match: Tusitala (the teller of tales). From all accounts available, the Samoan really seems to consider him one of their own, which is reflected well in this novel.
This novel also accurately mentioned a lot of virtually unknown history relating to the colonization of Samoa by England, Germany, and the United States. For instance, Mr Fergins discusses the Samoan Crisis, in which England, Germany and the U.S. almost went to war over the Samoan islands in 1887. What stopped the war? A cyclone (hurricane.) This is a delightfully true coincidence of history: a huge tropical cyclone hit Samoa right as the standoff between the naval powers came to a head. The cyclone stopped a war by destroying all the warships. With no warships, the powers that be decided to “peacefully” divide the islands between themselves. (Peaceful for white people, not so much for the Samoans, since the colonial powers were egging on a Samoan Civil War to try to put a puppet ruler on the throne, and it ended badly for a lot of the natives. As is usually the case during colonial times). This novel talks about the aftermath of the Samoan Civil War and how it impacted the average Samoan, which is really awesome to see mentioned. So few people know what colonialism did to the Pacific Islands, and it’s nice to see it discussed in this novel.
I don’t want to delve too much into the plot, because spoilers. Suffice to say, shenanigans ensue between RLS, Davenport and Mr Fergins. Did they ever get RLS’s last manuscript? Read the book and find out for yourself!
So, overall opinion on this book: I liked it. I did not love it. I find the concept of the bookaneers to be kind of sketchy. I think they were supposed to be viewed as helping the world get access to books, but I found them to be extremely self-serving, and it was hard for me to root for them. Honestly, I was rooting for RLS the whole time, and hoping they didn’t get his manuscript.
I would really only recommend this novel to someone who really loved books, or someone who knows Samoa. Because the most redeeming things about this novel are the character of Robert Louis Stevenson (the author incorporates real quotes by the author into the storyline, so the characterization is really well done), Mr. Clover’s genuine love of books, the Samoan Islands lending a very good sense of atmosphere to the novel, and the ending.
The ending. I can’t write much because it’s a big spoiler. But I will say after a whole novel of questioning the author’s apparent attempts to make the bookaneers into sympathetic characters, the ending made me consider that perhaps the author’s point was the exact opposite all along. It was good. A very good ending that made the reader think about the complexities of passion, what it means to be good and bad, and that proverbial road to hell being paved with good intentions.