‘Charles Town’ an audacious feat of reimagining, retelling a classic

CHARLES TOWN: The Novel. By William P. Baldwin. Evening Post Books. 287 pages. $24.95.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” was initially viewed as a boys’ novel, but eventually, on the basis of the novel, Stevenson became recognized as a major writer of fiction by such diverse readers (and major writers) as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. No less a literary figure than Stevenson’s great friend, Henry James, praised the character Alan Breck as “a masterpiece.” “Kidnapped” remains among the most widely read, and universally enjoyed, novels of all time.

Many writers would consider this rare combination of serious-reader critical acclaim and general-reader popularity antithetical to a successful sequel. Not William Baldwin. Baldwin not only has written a sequel, he’s rewritten “Kidnapped” itself. The result, “Charles Town,” is a mashup of remarkable courage and success.

In the new plot, David Balfour and Alan Breck aren’t shipwrecked on their involuntary voyage to Carolina. They make it to Charleston where, in 1750, tourism had not yet achieved significant popularity. In this Charleston, new arrivals such as Balfour and Breck routinely could expect to encounter the point of the sword or the ball of the musket.

It is here, in this Charleston, that Baldwin’s audacious challenge succeeds. We read of the place and its landmarks, but instead of experiencing a dry recollection of ancient history, we get to live there among its villains and heroes, victims and victimizers, placed amid a Dickensian cast of supporting characters.

On one level, there’s plenty of the “boys’ novel” adventure; on another, loads of tongue-in-cheek humor; and, unlike its predecessor, big helpings of romance.

Baldwin shows an enthusiasm for his characters that is infectious, and the plot moves quickly and dramatically. As Baldwin announces on his final page, “Much happens — has happened — and only waits upon the telling.”

Reviewer Allan Holmes is a partner in the law firm of Gibbs and Holmes.