I didn't know all that much about The Coral Island before I read it recently. It certainly isn't a book I would have come to without my 1001 quest. The Coral Island was published in 1857 and has not been out of print since. A rather important book it influenced later books such as Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies.
The Coral Island tells the tale of three young men. Fifteen year old Ralph Rover, who is our first person narrator, 13 year old Peterkin Gay and Jack Martin, 18, who becomes the leader of the group after they are shipwrecked together on a remote coral island in the South Pacific within the first two chapters of the book.
Shipwrecks have become a common storyline, so much so that they are their own genre- Robinsonade- derived from Robinson Crusoe of course- sadly I can't link to my review, as I stalled half way through my reading a year ago, The Black Stallion, Kensuke's Kingdom. The Cay. A robinsonade is generally not my favourite storyline I think, although I did enjoy those three newer shipwreck survival tales.
I found the first half of The Coral Island to be pretty slow going actually- the story of the initial shipwreck happens quite early, but then the rather gentle pace of the boys establishing their home base on the island, learning where to find the rather plentiful food available to them- they dive for oysters, octopus and fish in their Water Garden, hunt pigs and ducks, and make use of the myriad edible plants- coconuts, taro, yams, breadfruit, plantains, plums and apples. The trees also provide materials for their boat-building exploits and they make use of candlenuts as candles, all described in far too much detail IMHO.
But the action really picks up about half way through- tsunamis, a dreadful storm, run ins with cannibals and pirates. Indeed the second half of the book is often a rather gruesome, bloodthirsty affair. The gore is counterbalanced with a clear Christian message. From early on we realise that Ralph was sent to sea with his Bible as company.
My mother gave me her blessing and small Bible; and her last request was, that I would never forget to read a chapter every day, and say my prayers, which I promised, with tears in my eyes, that I would certainly do.
In the early weeks after their shipwreck the boys count the days so that they know which day is Sunday, in the same way as Robinson Crusoe actually. The spread of the civilizing force of Christianity through missionaries is a powerful message in the second half of the book.
R.M Ballantyne was a rather prolific author, writing over 100 books for children. His works were generally books of high adventure written for boys, based on his own adventures and experiences. Ballantyne lived and worked in Canada as a young man and used this experience of the world when he started to create exciting adventure stories for boys. It is said that because of an inaccuracy about the opening of coconuts in The Coral Island that Ballantyne then travelled extensively to ensure the accuracy of his later books. I should have thought a massive island filled with many species of penguins in a tropical clime was a bigger error than a slight misunderstanding of the intricacies of opening a coconut! Otherwise I quite marveled at this 19th century Scot creating a plausible South Sea paradise.
In 1967 Ballantyne biographer Eric Quayle was able to write
Sadly, I don't think that this is the case any longer. My area library system doesn't even have any Ballantyne books in their catalogue. However many of his books still live on electronically and are available as free etexts. Although it seems he still garners young male fans- two American teenagers set up a fan site Ballantynethebrave to promote his work to modern boys.