The Swiss Family Robinson was originally published in German in 1812; the English translation I read is from 1814, but (as I learned from a “Did You Know?” section at the back of the book) some of it is based on sections added by the French translator, Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu: one of the most memorable episodes isn’t in Wyss’s original! I’d never read the book as a kid, or seen the movie, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect: I knew it was about a shipwrecked family who ended up building themselves a treehouse, but that was about all I could tell you about it.

As it turns out, I found The Swiss Family Robinson to be kind of a slog. The plot: a man, his wife, and their four sons (who range in age from 8 to 15) are leaving Europe on a ship that’s going to set up a new settlement far away, but the ship gets wrecked in a storm and the members of this family are the only ones left on board. The wreck ends up perched on some rocks in such a way that the family manages to survive, and also manages to save a lot of the ship’s provisions, which are both plentiful and useful. When they make their way from the rocks to an island that’s within sight, they find a landscape that turns out to be full of edible and otherwise useful plants, and also full of a fairly bewildering/nonsensical assortment of animals, many of which are also edible or otherwise useful. They proceed to set themselves up with living quarters, first right by the shore and then farther inland, where they build that treehouse; as time passes they make a number of other structures on the island, and even manage to hollow out a winter shelter inside of a cave full of crystals of salt.

The writing (at least in this translation) is more serviceable than beautiful, but my main problem with the book is that it’s narrated by the father, which has the result of making it extremely didactic. Apparently (again, according to the backmatter of the edition I read) this book was received, when it was published, as being more entertaining/less solely instructive than other books for children, but to this 21st-century adult reader, anyhow, the narrative often feels like a lecture. For example: the father says he “cannot approve of deceit, even as a joke” (24) and also talks about how he wants his family’s story to show “how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of a strong, pure and manly character” (399). Unfortunately, character development in novelistic terms is not the book’s greatest strength: I feel like I can only describe the characters in the most general terms, even after having read more than 450 pages about them. (The father is knowledgable; the mother is hard-working; Ernest is the science-minded one; Jack tends to be impetuous; Fritz and Franz are kind of just the oldest and the youngest.) I guess I’m glad to have read this, and there were scenes/scenarios that I found interesting (like when the father teaches his family how to prepare manioc root, or when he makes rubber boots for everyone), but, yeah: I don’t feel like I missed out because I didn’t read this as a kid.

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