The Swiss Family Robinson

Title: The Swiss Family Robinson

Author: Johann David Wyss

After a violent storm wrecks their ship, the Robinson family is abandoned by the sailors to sink with the vessel. But their situation proves a blessing in disguise. The wreck is close enough to a deserted island that the family manages an escape, and from there the story chronicles how they carve out a new life in this wilderness.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve re-read this book. It’s been a staple since early childhood, and I was recently thinking about it, so I dug it out, curious to see how well it would hold up under a re-read this many years later.

This is, in short, the quintessential wilderness survival novel. With several homages to Robinson Crusoe, the narrator relates the saga of building shelter, obtaining food, taming animals, and crafting various implements. The story, in contrast to survival novels like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet, presents the majority of the trials as a joyous adventure, and it’s the positive outlook that makes this so much more readable. In fact, towards the end when the novel begins to delve more into a variety of misfortunes, it loses some of that charm.

The level of diction is certainly higher than in a standard children’s novel these days, but that being said, I would still encourage kids to read it, as the book rarely bogs down. It’s also an amusing contrast to many of the overly-PC kids books I see these days, as this family is much more interested in shooting new animals for a bit of variety at the dinner table or cutting down trees to use in constructing a house than pushing some “we must preserve the environment at all costs” message (and to be fair, the narrator does mention at one point being reluctant to cut down certain trees for fear of spoiling the beauty of the area around his home; the book has some interesting thoughts about sustainability).

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. The island somewhat magically has all sorts of foreign plants and animals, including lions, tigers, and elephants, with a merry disregard for actual habitat. (Honestly, I was good until the elephants showed up…. that seemed a strange thing to not notice for several years of living on the island and suddenly find out near the end, as elephants are rather noisy as well as big.) I also feel like the end is haphazard. Suddenly the family finds another castaway, but they hardly have time to react to this when the ship they’ve been longing for finally arrives.

This novel, more than any other, influenced so many of my childhood imaginings. Being stranded in a deserted place not only looked possible, but fun. If you haven’t read it yet, and you have any taste at all for this kind of adventure fiction, you’re missing out. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

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