The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was first published in 1812. I read the 1992 Bantam Classic version.
“For many days we had been tempest-tossed…the raging storm increased in fury until on the seventh day all hope was lost.” From these dire opening lines, a delightful story of adventure begins. One family will emerge alive from this terrible storm: the Robinsons—a Swiss pastor, his wife, and four sons, plus two dogs and a shipload of livestock, hens, pigeons, and geese! Inspired by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, this heartwarming tale portrays a family’s struggle to create a new life for themselves on a strange and fantastic tropical island. There each boy must learn to control his own nature—such as Ernest’s bookishness and Fritz’s hot temper—as their adventures lead to amazing discoveries, danger, and tantalizing surprises, including a puzzling message tie to an albatross’s leg. But it is the authenticity of the boys’ behavior, the ingenuity of the family, and the natural wonders of this exotic land that have made The Swiss Family Robinson, first published in 1812-1813, one of the world’s best-loved and most enduring stories of shipwreck and survival.
I owned the Children’s Great Illustrated Classics version of The Swiss Family Robinson and read it many times when I was young. The entire concept of an island paradise where a family has to live off the land and does so successfully (and lives in a tree house!) fascinated me. I knew as I got older that the book I owned was abridged, but I wasn’t sure of how much had actually been cut out. So, I decided to pick it up to read the full thing for the first time—and also I wanted to relive that island paradise fantasy of mine.
Now, reading the original as an adult, I can see how silly that fantasy was—not because it’s wrong to imagine things like that, but because—realist that I am—I had a hard time believing that so much variety in animal and plant life would be on that island. I know there are penguins on Madagascar, so it’s not too much of a long shot to have penguins on an island in the Indian Ocean somewhere, but penguins and ostriches and lions and bears and seals and capybaras and jackals and hyenas and the myriad of other animals that are living on this apparently very large island? That’s a bit of a stretch. And yes, it makes for a great and fascinating tale, fulfilling all the “wild animal tamer” fantasies of many children (who doesn’t want to ride an ostrich?), but as an adult, it’s a bit harder to swallow.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. Even if the exact descriptions of planting, killing, skinning, crafting, cooking, etc. were a little wearing after a while, I still enjoyed the basic message and plot behind all the (oftentimes boring) details. Even if the tree house wasn’t as big or as majestic as I remember (thanks, Disney), I still liked the concept of a family surviving and thriving after what could have been a deadly accident.
The book gets a little preachy at times, but that’s common in a lot of 19th century literature. For the most part, Wyss devotes his time to describing how the family survives with a few interludes from the father about thankfulness and providence—not a bad thing to emphasize, just delivered a little clumsily.
The Swiss Family Robinson wasn’t as thrilling and imaginatively fantastic as I remember it being, but it still hits all the “shipwrecked on a deserted island” boxes—and then some! The emphasis on the technicalities of how the Robinson’s survived is, perhaps, a bit much at times, and it’s hard to believe that any island could be as varied in flora and fauna as the one the Robinson’s are on, but there’s still wonder and fascination to be had when reading it. However, even after reading the original, I think the Children’s Illustrated Classic edition will still be the one that has the biggest stamp on my mind and memory—it was just that fascinating to me.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
“Stop, stop, my boy!” cried I. “All will be done in good time. Tomorrow and the day after will bring work of their own. And tell me, did you see no traces of our shipmates?”
“Not a sign of them, either on land or sea, living or dead,” he replied.
“But the sucking pig,” said Jack, “where did you get it?”
“It was one of several,” said Fritz, “which I found on the shore; most curious animals they are. They hopped rather than walked, and every now and then would squat down on their legs and rub their snouts with their forepaws. Had not I been afraid of losing them all, I would have tried to catch one alive, they seemed so tame.”