Monday, March 31, 2014

Swiss Family Robinson

Johann David Wyss (1743 - 1818) was a Swiss pastor who wanted to teach his sons specific character strengths, including self-reliance. Wyss died leaving a disjointed collection of stories. The book was arranged and completed by Wyss's son Johann Rudolf Wyss (1781 – 1830).

The main character is a pastor who with his family were on their way to New Guinea when a storm over took their ship. They become stranded on a deserted island, but after devising ways to remove the animals and every useful item from the ship, they recreate civilization.

Since its initial publication in 1812 it has been translated and rewritten many times and was the basis for a Disney film and a television series.

I read the book several times when a girl and loved the Disney movie. Overall, this is a can do, positive, upbeat book. The characters never met a disaster or crisis they cannot handle. They seem to have read every book ever written on exploration, primitive cultures and their material world and industry, and every book on flora and fauna of the known universe.

Among the prickly stalks of the cactus and aloes, I perceived a plant with large pointed leaves, which I knew to be the karata. I pointed out to the boys its beautiful red flowers; the leaves are an excellent application to wounds, and thread is made from the filaments, and the pith of the stem is used by the savage tribes for tinder.

"How happy it is for us," said she [the other], "that you have devoted yourself to reading and study. In our ignorance we might have passed this treasure, without suspecting its value."

One problem after another is solved by the resourceful father and sons. Mother suffers a fall from the treehouse, one son suffers a serious burn and another son is shot, a hurricane destroys their fruit trees, and mom and a son are abducted by cannibals from the next island over. All crises are met head on and solved. Dad even makes rubber boots!
Warning: wild boar coming!

The second half of the book concerns Father and his older sons returning to find mother and the younger son missing. They fear that cannibals have abducted them. The menfolk sail to an island and after many adventures with 'savages' and a priest they are reunited.

Goodreads comments on the book are mostly negative, especially because the boys sometimes go around shooting animals willy-nilly.

The next morning, Ernest had used my bow, which I had given him, very skilfully; bringing down some dozens of small birds, a sort of ortolan, from the branches of our tree, where they assembled to feed on the figs. This induced them all to wish for such a weapon...I gave my boys leave to kill as many ortolans as they chose, for I knew that, half-roasted, and put into casks, covered with butter, they would keep for a length of time, and prove an invaluable resource in time of need.

We are today repelled by the sense that all creation is there for mankind to use. We know what happened to many species and to our environment as an outcome of that sad attitude towards creation.

We know that ostriches, wild boar, bears and penguins do not live side by side not to speak of kangaroos, pineapples, water buffalo and a multitude of other things the Robinsons find on their island. It is pretty absurd by today's knowledgeable readers.

The book is pre-novel in the way Robinson Crusoe is, episodic and without depth of character, lots of life instruction and little sense of plot. Wyss was to have told the book as a series of stories or tales.

Prayers for safe delivery
There is a strong religious ground to the novel, and 18th c values are clear. Mom is revered and loved, a paragon of virtue. Father is a fount of wisdom, strength, and knowledge and clearly is in charge. The family always gives thanks to God their preserver, defender, and guide. The sons represent different personalities and are accepted and esteemed for the gifts God gave to them. Education and self-improvement are esteemed. And in all things they hold strong to their faith in God.

Our path became every instant more intricate, from the amazing quantity of creeping plants which choked the way, and obliged us to use the axe continually. The heat was excessive, and we got on slowly, when Ernest, always observing, and who was a little behind us, cried out, "Halt! a new and important discovery!" We returned, and he showed us, that from the stalk of one of the creepers we had cut with our axe, there was issuing clear, pure water. It was the liane rouge, which, in America, furnishes the hunter such a precious resource against thirst. Ernest was much pleased; he filled a cocoa-nut cup with the water, which flowed from the cut stalks like a fountain, and carried it to his mother, assuring her she might drink fearlessly; and we all had the comfort of allaying our thirst, and blessing the Gracious Hand who has placed this refreshing plant in the midst of the dry wilderness for the benefit of man.

Another aspect that upsets moderns sensibilities is the attitude towards the local indigenous people, the 'savages' who are just becoming Christianized. Just the use of the word savage sets one's teeth on edge.

So why did I love this book as a girl? It is clearly a 'boy's' book, with many adventures and more knowledge about how to identify and prepare edible vegetative matter than any fiction book ought to have in it.

1. It starts with a shipwreck---a storm has raged for six days already, and on the seventh day the ship strikes a rock. What can be more exciting than that?

2. Father and Mother are models of strength and courage. Every child believes their parents are--or wants to trust that their parents are--strong protectors they can rely on.

"Take courage," cried I, [the father] "there is yet hope for us; the vessel, in striking between the rocks, is fixed in a position which protects our cabin above the water, and if the wind should settle to-morrow, we may possibly reach the land."

This assurance calmed my children, and as usual, they depended on all I told them; they rejoiced that the heaving of the vessel had ceased, as, while it lasted, they were continually thrown against each other. My wife, more accustomed to read my countenance, discovered my uneasiness; and by a sign, I explained to her that I had lost all hope. I felt great consolation in seeing that she supported our misfortune with truly Christian resignation.

"Let us take some food," said she; "with the body, the mind is strengthened; this must be a night of trial."

3. They have adventures, suffer hardships, and are pressed to solve huge problems but prevail and flourish. Wish fulfillment! Illusions of superhuman ability! What child can resist!

4. The boys all have a special pet animal. They get to ride animals. They have two dogs. Kids love animals.

5. They live in a treehouse! They build a grotto in a cave. They live in a tent. What could be grander?

6. The boys are respected for their contributions to the welfare of the family. The older boys are relied upon to do adult work.

I don't expect to ever read Swiss Family Robinson again. But after rereading Robinson Crusoe, and as I have been revisiting childhood favorite books, it seemed fitting.

For an overview on the author, developent of the novel, and influences see:

Project Gutenberg's free ebook with illustrations can be found at:

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