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Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe Hardcover – February 7, 2002

3.1 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on the trials and tribulations of Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk. Souhami (The Trials of Radclyffe Hall) draws on journals, maritime histories, and ship and parish records to detail his engrossing story. Born the seventh son of a poor cobbler, Selkirk fought violently with his brothers and dreamed about the "adventure, gold and escape" that the sea seemed to promise. In 1703, at the age of 23, he joined a looting expedition led by William Dampier, an experienced pirate who plundered the treasures of French and Spanish ships on the South Seas. But appalling conditions on the journey scurvy, hunger and a leaky ship (worms ate through its wooden hull) led to mutiny against the drunken and belligerent Dampier. After quarreling with a new captain, Selkirk (who was very belligerent himself) was put ashore on Juan Fern ndez, an uninhabited island hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile. Souhami provides arresting descriptions of the island and the life Selkirk lived on it for more than four years, when hunger and thirst were "diversions" from his solitude. He survived, in part, by eating goats (with whom he also found sexual release), fish and vegetation. Rescued by another Dampier expedition, at first Selkirk was a wild man who had almost lost the power of speech. He did, however, recover from his ordeal: he took two wives, continued to sail and died at sea in 1721. Complete with detailed comparisons between Defoe's novel and Selkirk's life, Souhami's account is a well-researched investigation of a forgotten antihero.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

This is an enthralling portrait of the man who was the source for Defoe's most famous novel, Robinson Crusoe. Souhami employs a poetic style that instantly transports readers. They are taken back to a time, the heyday of British privateering on the high seas, and to an existential question--could I survive being marooned? Alexander Selkirk's survival story has been popular ever since it was first publicized in 1712 by the ship captain who found him on an island west of Chile. The tale generated the publicity Souhami draws on, but her recounting is quite original. Selkirk was stranded on the desert isle as punishment for mutinous behavior. But as Souhami relates, English readers felt "cheated" by the rescuing captain's spare account of how Selkirk managed to survive alone for four years; so responding to demand for embellishment were, first, pamphleteer Richard Steele, and second, novelist Daniel Defoe. Souhami's wonderful continuation of the story's lineage will satisfy readers' extraordinary appetite for shipwreck sagas. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt (February 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151005265
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151005260
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,088,691 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book appears to be a biography of Alexander Selkirk, but is actually a well-researched historical novel. The author knows her sources. There are many footnotes, quotes, and factual details. You want to believe she had some way of knowing the intimate details she supplies--how people saw their situations, what their motives were, and the vivid details of their experiences that bring the story to life. After all, historical sources sometimes provide such background, and in this case we do have some sources for Selkirk's thoughts, feelings and experiences. Soon enough, however, one sees that Souhami has simply assumed the authorial omniscience of a novelist. She states as plain fact many things that she could not possibly know, including things that only Alexander Selkirk could have known and that he would not likely have revealed.

After she tells how Selkirk masturbated against palm trees while he was marooned on the island, a serious reader continues to read only to see how far she will go. At the same time it is interesting to note how she painstakingly documents some details that are not especially interesting--perhaps this is a tactic to make the book seem more like a solid historical narrative.

Her most imaginative invention is Mr. Selkirk's having sex with wild goats on the island. We do know, from his own account, that he ran down goats for sport and food, and either killed them to eat, or else notched their ears and released them. We do not know that he indulged in any other kind of sport with them. Certainly Selkirk had an abnormal capacity for violence and survived in a pirate culture that was a home for the most dysfunctional dregs of humanity. He could have been guilty of screwing goats or even kinkier things. But there is no way to know. Ms.
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Format: Paperback
Souhami's book is awful for the simple fact that she bases so much of Selkirk's actions on his sexual appetite for goats. This may be true, however Souhami bases this gross assertion on the anecdote of one unnamed islander. Forget Selkirk's own testimony. Forget the fact that Defoe's interviews with Selkirk led to a powerful story of an individual wrestling with the providence of God. Forget that when Selkirk lived the idea of throwing off the shackles of moral convention wasn't part of the common individuals frame of reference. No,instead Souhami is clear in her conviction that Selkirk's whole being was centered on a randiness for goats. Unfortunately this leads Souhami to defend this outrageous claim throughout the rest of the book. Defoe, closer to the source, was inspired to write a story that captured the dynamic and driving spirit of Western cultural achievement(Not that it always benefitted everyone). Souhami instead jams a narrow modern interpretation on a classic and we're left with one of the least inspiring tales ever fabricated.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read all the reviews here and have read the book too, enjoying it thoroughly. I find Souhami's meandering style and graphic imagery fascinating. There is no way she could write a book that is just about Selkirk's sojourn on the island, there just isn't enough information. So instead, she weaves a tapestry of the harshness of eighteenth century sealife and lets us imagine for ourselves what it would be like to sail the seas with men like William Dampier in search of booty.
Alexander Selkirk was not a nice guy and he travelled in the company of others who were also not nice guys. But these rough men had their own code and sense of fair play, so when Selkirk argued with and refused to obey his incompetent superior, he was marooned rather than executed as he probably would have been under similar circumstances in the Royal Navy.
Selkirk was of an age when people knew how to do things with their hands, they had to in order to survive. With a bare minimum of necessities, he was able to carve out a lonely yet comfortable existence on his isle of exile. Souhami paints a beautiful portrait of how the lush the island was and how bountiful it must have seemed to the marooned sailor. Her descriptions of the flora, fauna, and topography are very evocative.
Beyond the isle itself, Souhami expands on the geopolitical situation and the position of the English vis-a-vis the Spanish in the struggle for control of the seas and thus of trade. I learned quite a few interesting things about the Spanish settlements and inter-settlement communications reading this book. Souhami's prose makes the era come alive.
Despite all the privations of life at sea, pirates and privateers were guys who were truly free. Selkirk's life is one of breaking the bonds of social custom and morality.
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Format: Hardcover
This book was a disappointment to me, both stylistically and in terms of content. There's very little here that a Google search wouldn't turn up or that a bright high school junior couldn't slap together. The main point- Selkirk's life on the Island- gets 32 skimpy pages. I was disturbed by Souhami's preoccupation with Selkirk's supposed sexuality, unsubstantiated, disrespectful and demeaning to him (but he's dead, so he can't defend himself.) She tried to set a "heavy" and dramatic tone not through presenting the stuff of his experiences (because she seemed to have little to present)- which would have been the genuine way- relying instead on hackneyed literary devices, including foul vulgarities, of which there seemed to be a greater proportion than facts and information. Her persona was so in the forefront that it was difficult to see Selkirk as Selkirk- he seemed more like the hen-pecked husband of some dominant termagent, as if he'd have no personality without her. To my mind and taste, she committed most of the worst errors weak writers are capable of- this was painful reading made so much more acute by not satisfying the curiosity it evoked. I don't feel as though I learned much, and I have doubts about many of her light weight observations. Get it at the library if you want to check this out- but certainly don't make the mistake I did in buying the book.

9
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