The Swiss Family Robinson
by Johan David Wyss
Why has it taken this long for me to realize how much I love castaway narratives? There’s something incredibly satisfying in reading about human beings surviving on their brains and gut. And in the case of Swiss pastor Johan David Wyss’s version, The Swiss Family Robinson, surviving on their hearts.
Because family love and cooperation trump all in this beguiling tale based on the stories Wyss told to his children before gathering the narratives into book form in 1812. The love between father and children, and, uniquely for such narratives, husband and wife, mother and children shines through the now somewhat antiquated language of early translations. (Yes, there’s a feisty, shipwrecked mom in the story, who stands up to her husband when she disapproves of his ideas, dons sailor’s trousers when her skirts become a hindrance, is handy with a gun and able to cook anything from flamingo to kangaroo.)
Jules Verne admired Wyss and hoped to out-Robinson him with his own castaway tale, The Mysterious Island. To do that, he dropped his own crew of castaways from a balloon onto an island filled with almost as improbable a menagerie of beasts and botanicals as Wyss. But he couldn’t come near Wyss’s tale for sheer loveableness.
Both Verne and Wyss’s stories hark back to the grandfather of all castaway stories, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In fact, the Swiss family’s surname is never revealed. The “Robinson” in the title of Wyss’s book merely serves to link them to the original doughty castaway.
I’ve never understood why Defoe’s version is shelved among children’s books. The early eighteenth century text is full of Crusoe’s spiritual wrestling with the grimly Calvinistic version of Christianity Defoe subscribed to. Fast forward a hundred years and Wyss, although still deeply religious, preaches only gently to his family of rowdy kids. He’s as much a loving parent entertaining his children with wild adventure tales as he is a spiritual advisor.
The story begins a shipwreck. (Defoe’s tale began with a history of the entire Crusoe family, the likes of which Wyss mercifully spares us.) The family¾ father William, mother Elizabeth, and their four sons, Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz¾ are sailing through the South Pacific bent on settling in Australia. Abandoned by the crew of their foundering ship, they sustain their courage through prayer and, sensibly, a meal and preparation of makeshift life jackets.
Escaping onto a deserted island, they find the only survivors are themselves, the excellent hounds of the ship’s captain (Verne remembered this when adding a helpful dog to his story) and a host of livestock. But their ship was laden with an incredible array of necessities for their anticipated destination. As industrious as they are lucky, they soon have a multilevel treehouse any kid would envy, a series of improbable domesticated wild animals including a buffalo (which seems to be a bison miraculously transported from the northern to southern hemispheres), but no books. (Yay, school’s out for the duration!)
What is there to fear? Angry natives? No. Pirates? No. Volcanoes, hurricanes, sharks? No, no and no. The worst possibility, in fact, is that a well-meaning rescuer will arrive to take them away from their peaceable kingdom. Even the arrival of another castaway, this one a girl, can’t drive a wedge in their familial happiness.
If you want to read a castaway narrative to your kids, make it this one. Or just pretend it’s for your kids and read it for yourself. It’s widely available, including free downloads from Project Gutenberg,
(Next Wednesday, alas, there’s no peace at the river as Adventure classics continues a September of young heroes with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)