Book Review: Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

Book Review: Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe by Diana Souhami (Four Stars)

“‘Our Pinnace return’d from the shore’ Woodes Rogers wrote in his journal, ‘and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth’d in Goat Skins who look’d wilder than the first Owners of them.’”

The prototype for Robinson Crusoe was more extraordinary but less uplifting than Daniel Defoe’s fictional hero. His humanness as well as that of scallywags with whom he sailed—and who marooned him in the South Pacific—bursts through in Souhami’s meticulously researched volume.

“[Dampier] bragged ‘that he knew where to go and could not fail of taking to the value of £500,000 any Day in the year’.† He was not believed. This captain, when it came to action, hid behind a mattress and gave no orders. He was cowardly, incompetent and usually drunk.”

Alexander Selkirk’s “rescue” comes halfway through his story. It goes downhill from there. He was a born buccaneer, despite a Scot Presbyterian upbringing and the four years isolation. Sadly, this tiger didn’t change his stripes, even though contemporaries whitewashed his story as a modern (eighteenth century) Pilgrim’s Progress. Defoe met Selkirk and undoubtedly recognized that he was not the morally uplifting hero the public needed. Hence his fictional re-incarnation.

“He was, he thought, a better cook, tailor and carpenter than before, and a better Christian too.” Followed by a discussion of his sexual relations with the goats.

Souhani tells Selkirk’s tale “warts and all.” The telling is occasionally tedious, occasionally shocking. But the truth tells through.

“This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions; or to use his own Expression, I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”