I took my big fat copy of the Swiss Family Robinson with me on the plane. I was just about the only one there with an actual book instead of a Kindle, and you know what? The plane windows were all open, the sunlight was bright, and those guys with their Nooks couldn’t read their books because they couldn’t see the screens!
I, on the other hand, plunged right in to the 565 pages of what I was SURE would be tasty reminiscent goodness. No waiting until I could turn my “device” back on, either!
Because I’m interested in historical context, I kept trying to puzzle out where in the world the book was supposed to take place. It starts out with a Swiss family that is going to be “colonists” somewhere in “the East Indies”. There is a shipwreck and they’re the only human survivors.
The island they wash up on–the first thing they see are some “penguins and flamingos.” In short order, they run into:
- Giant sea tortoises
- Fig trees
- Coconut trees
- A kangaroo
- A tiger
- A lion
- An “eagle”
- “Sea-dogs” which I think are sharks
- “Sea-cows” which MAY be manatees?
- Wild boars
- A falcon
- A beached whale
- “Monkeys” which are as tall as the youngest son
- and a whole host of other animals I have now forgotten.
It just kept getting more and more preposterous and unbelievable to me to the point where I was laughing when another animal was introduced.
So What’s the Problem?
I was a bothered by the idea that the Swiss author, a Protestant minister, may have just made the whole thing up and populated his fictitious island with whatever “exotic” animals he fancied. I was discussing this with a librarian and they were kind of like “it’s fiction–get over it.” And I couldn’t figure out WHY it bugged me so much.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the reason I want the island to be real, and historically accurate, is that THAT lends another level of depth to the reading experience. Layers. Because honestly, the straightforward story is a bit…boring. It’s all about how they build things from scratch and there are some sermons from the dad.
I realized that I read fiction with one eye on the story and one on the context. What does the way the story is written tell me about the attitudes, prejudices, certainties, and knowledge of the Swiss in 1812? What did they know about the rest of the world and when did they know it? Why do they call the inhabitants they might run into (but never do) “savages”? They have some familiarity with Englishmen–what is the difference in the national personalities?
Where is the author coming from? Why does he think self-sufficiency is so important? What is his attitude toward colonization? I want to really have the experience a Swiss colonist would have in 1812 on a real island in the South Pacific, one that doesn’t have North American animals like eagles flying around.
And in 1812, he would have had access to the knowledge of the British Royal Geographical Society…Captain Cook had been exploring around…maybe even Commodore Perry and David Livingstone, so no excuse for ignorance.
Not the Story I Remember
I was dying to read The Swiss Family Robinson because I so loved the movie as a little girl.* I must say, I found the book disappointing. I’m an animal lover and I hated the way they slaughtered almost every animal they came across or made them do their bidding. The island had plenty of other food on it, but they seemed to have that dreadful attitude that animals were put here for us to use however we want–that they have no independent lives or rights. That sucked.
Also, they were so prepared for attack with their cannon and explosives and boats and I was all prepared for a pirate attack or at least some hostile Malaysians–but that never came. I also felt the book was setting you up for a romance between one of the boys and the English girl they rescue on the island…but that also came to nothing.
This book, published in 1812, was based on Daniel Defoe’s 1712, Robinson Crusoe, which I’ve never read. If you have, drop me a line. I’d love to compare!
*The movie meant so much to me because I grew up in a small Idaho town without a movie theater. For my birthday when I was 10, 11, and 12, my mom drove six or eight giggling little girls 30 miles each way to the movie theater in our county seat, where there was just one movie playing…and every year, it was…guess what.
The Last Word
My partners in crime in San Jose!
While searching for an image for this book–I want the pretty blue cover of the copy I left in San Jose–when I was finished I was so disgusted with the book I didn’t even want to carry it back with me on the plane–anyway:
I came across this very funny and apropos review on GoodReads:
“More appropriate title suggestion: SHOOT TO KILL! A less catchy but even more precise title would be We Killed a Lot of Animals: The Story of a Family Stranded on an Island, Who Were Never in Serious Danger and Who – I Believe It Has Been Mentioned, Yet Bears Repeating – Killed a Lot of Animals. The way they hauled off and shot at the slightest movement in the bushes was nearly worse than the drunken yahoos I’ve known who seemed to be purposefully trying to give hunters a bad name.”
Check out Jason’s whole review here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/62111.The_Swiss_Family_Robinson