The Island of Adventure was first published in 1944 and is the first book of the series. There will probably be some spoilers in this review, so you have been warned.
The story opens around a fairly average semi-rural house, but quickly moves to a much more interesting and memorable location. Craggy-Tops is a large house which hundreds of years old. It was built halfway up the cliffs on a wild and desolate part of the coast, so near the sea it is always drenched by the spray. It has no electricity or running water; instead they rely on the well outside and paraffin lamps. It is also half-ruined, with most of the rooms being too drafty for use. Just off the coast is the mysterious Isle of Gloom – constantly shrouded in mists it is completely uninhabited, and has been for a long time.
Being an Adventure Series book the main characters in it are Philip, Dinah, Jack, Lucy-Ann and Kiki the parrot (more info on these characters can be found here. Living at Craggy-Tops are Uncle Jocelyn – an absent-minded scholar obsessed with the history the local coastline, Aunt Polly – a hard-working woman struggling to run the old decrepit house and Jo-Jo their black handyman/servant. Holidaying in a shack a little way down the coast is Bill Smugs, who introduces himself as an ornithologist. Towards the end there are also some very unsavoury characters – the requisite ‘baddies’.
Being the first book of the series, this is the first time we meet all the characters. A little like the start of the Famous Five – the main characters meet for the first time in the first few chapters. Philip Mannering meets Jack and Lucy-Ann at Mr Roy’s house where the boys are receiving extra tuition, and the three immediately become good friends. Jack and Lucy-Ann are unable to go home as their uncle has broken his leg, so Philip invites them to come and stay with him and his sister Dinah at Craggy-Tops. Dinah first meets the Trents on the station platform, and is very surprised to see them (as is Jo-Jo) as Philip had kept their arrival a secret.
After settling in at Craggy-Tops the children explore the beach and the caves along the coast, in the process managing to get on the wrong side of Jo-Jo. They stumble upon a friendly chap called Bill Smugs who takes them out in his boat and teaches them to sail. As a bird enthusiast Jack is desperate to visit the Isle of Gloom, where he thinks he’s seen the extinct Great Auk, so the boys practice sailing Bill’s boat, and then secretly borrow Jo-Jo’s to sail to the island. They discover there are tumble-down shacks on the island, and lots of strange holes leading down into the ground. Even stranger is the pile of tins which look like they’ve been put there very recently.
They visit again, this time with the girls, and explore what turn out to be old copper mines. Down the tunnels they stumble upon some men they assume are friends of Bill’s, but they’re rather tough-looking and aren’t at all pleased to see them, despite their mention of the name Smugs. The men are clearly up to no good, and all of a sudden things start to get exciting. Three of the children get locked up in a cave (Jack’s not caught only because he is following Kiki who flew away down a passage). Cleverly the three escape and make it back to the mainland, but Jack is left in the mines and gets himself caught too. Bill reveals his true identity and is pressed into service leading a rescue mission which becomes even more dangerous than it sounds, thanks to the ruthlessness of Jo-Jo and his cronies.
Philip’s pets don’t play a particularly large role in this first book but he has a little brown mouse living in his jersey through the book, who makes several appearances. While at Mr Roy’s he also has a young rat who runs out his sleeve and up Mr Roy’s trouser leg. We don’t hear about the rat again so presumably it ran away (or was killed by Mr Roy!) It’s mentioned that the day before the ‘rat incident’ he had a large and peculiarly coloured caterpillar up his sleeve. Also at Mr Roy’s he has a grey squirrel in one pocket as well as a baby hedgehog and large snail in the other. In a letter to Philip, Dinah warns him not to bring any pets home reminding him of the bat he brought home one time, and the earwigs he trained the year before.
I love all the secret passages in this book (of course). Jo-Jo is so easy to hate which makes it all the more amusing when the children sneak down the secret passage and leave him sat on the beach all day. It’s also great when Bill takes them into town in his car and they bump into Jo-Jo who cannot fathom how they got there. Craggy Tops sounds a wonderful place too (if not very comfortable!), the old house built on the rugged cliffs so near the beach and caves.
Despite being an adventure story and not a family one, there is a fair bit of familial relationship building in the book, and through the series. We start off the book with two separate sets of children (not very happily) living with aunts and uncles. By the end of the book they’re firm friends and Mrs Mannering not only is able to set up a home for her two, but she takes in their friends as well. This happens right at the end, so apart from all the children being very pleased about the idea we don’t see anything more of their new set-up.
This book is sometimes criticised for being racist – Jo-Jo is black, and he’s also the bad guy. On top of that he is portrayed quite badly – believing in “things” wandering at night, being quite mad as well as slow, lazy, stupid and rolling his eyes a lot. However if you actually read the book properly through to the end you will see that it is all a very clever act! Jo-Jo is a cold, calculating and intelligent man who plays the ‘stupid servant’ role beautifully so he can stay at Craggy-Tops without anyone suspecting he is up to anything. In modern editions Jo-Jo has become plain old Joe, a white man.
What’s also interesting about this book is it is the only one that Blyton has won an award for. The award was given by the Boys’ Club of America, though in America the book was titled Mystery Island.