In A Nutshell
Kidnapped tells the story of David Balfour, a young orphan who winds up kidnapped, placed on a ship bound for the Americas, shipwrecked on the northwestern coast of Scotland, and suspected of murder. This story, marketed to boys in the 1880s, has a fast pace, an exotic setting, and lots of suspense and danger to go around.
Author Robert Louis Stevenson published Kidnapped in 1886, four years after the serialization of his awesome pirate novel Treasure Island. 1886 was actually a red-letter year for Stevenson, as Charles Scribner also published his eerie novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (see our Shmoop guide to that one!). Both Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were extremely successful, both critically and financially.
In her "Preface" to the biographical edition of Kidnapped, Stevenson's wife Fanny wrote that her husband had a strong interest in the (pretty violent) history of Scotland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and had traveled extensively in the Scottish Highlands as a young man. When he was looking for a follow-up to Treasure Island, he hit on the idea of an adventure set in Scotland with a main character exploring the country as a stranger might.
While researching case files for a series of courtroom plays (never completed), Stevenson and his wife came upon the records of the trial of James Stewart for the 1751 murder of Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, in the Highland district of Appin. These files gave Stevenson enough background information to begin his project. He wove together a real-life event (the Appin murder) with the life of his fictional protagonist, David Balfour of Shaws. (See "What's Up With the Title?" for more on Stevenson's own relationship to David Balfour.)
Kidnapped has been popular since its publication precisely because of Stevenson's skillful simultaneous use of historical detail and character development. Stevenson describes writing Kidnapped in this way: "suddenly [the story] moved, David and Alan stepped out from the canvas, and I found I was in another world" (quoted in Iain Galbraith, "Notes." In Kidnapped. Köln, Germany. Könemann Publishers, 1996). That other world that Stevenson finds, out on the moors with David and Alan, is what we here at Shmoop like best about this book. Stevenson takes dry historical facts and livens them up with three-dimensional characters, making both the history and the fiction that much more intriguing to read.
Why Should I Care?
You know, Kidnapped is kind of hilarious. Imagine what it would be like if you stepped out your front door one day to head to your first job. Let's say you're going to be a waiter. On your way to work, you have visions of what a beautiful restaurant you'll be working at. Five stars all the way. Maybe you'll even meet some great guy or gal who will sweep you off your feet.
Then you get there, and it's a shack. You can't work here! What are you going to do? It's getting late, though. The sun is setting, and are those wolves howling in the distance? Plus, you're just that desperate for a paycheck. So you knock on the door. A window on the second floor opens, and a man, who is pointing a gun at you, invites you inside. Friends, that is the beginning of Kidnapped (well, sort of).
Pretty improbable, right? But that's the key to the genius of Kidnapped: when Davie Balfour starts out on his road to the house of Shaws, he's just like any seventeen-year-old setting out to make a living. Everything that spirals out from Davie's first encounter with his nutty uncle – kidnapping, shipwreck, run-ins with the law, all that craziness – is the result of Davie's bizarrely bad luck. He's not particularly special – he has no cool powers or amazing abilities. He's just a guy caught up in wild circumstances.
And over the course of the novel, Davie stays a regular guy. He goes through bratty, anxious, and depressed phases right up until the end of the book. He doesn't magically become some other person just because he learns a little bit on the road. He's an ordinary guy whom it's easy to identify with, with the added advantage of having some amazing adventures with outlaws and shipwrecks that we want to experience, but, you know, from the comfort of our own easy chairs. Let Davie get wet, dirty, and sick. We're happy to read along with him, sympathize with him, and then have some hot tea at the end of the day.