‘Swiss Family’ a great adventure story

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Everyone’s heard of the classic adventure novel “The Swiss Family Robinson” by Johann Wyss, but how many have actually read it? Even though it’s more than 200 years old, it’s worth a read. 

The family – Father, Mother, and four sons – are aboard a storm-tossed ship at sea. With the ship heavily damaged, they are abandoned by the crew. Praying to God for deliverance, the father devises a plan to get his family from the foundering ship to some land that can be seen. They make it safely to the land, which turns out to be a wild island teeming with plants and animals. 

Using their knowledge and what they have on hand, they set out with enthusiasm and hard work to build a new life for themselves. The parents and boys – Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz – are thrifty; salvaging what they can from the ship and using what they find on the island. One of their first needs is shelter, so they figure out a way to build a treehouse as protection from the wild animals. 

The boys, who range in age from 15 to almost 8, are in their element. After all, what boy wouldn’t want to live on a deserted island and have new adventures every day? Their father encourages them because he knows learning in all forms keeps the mind sharp and physical exercise keeps the body honed. 

But it’s not all fun, everyone has to work hard just so they can eat. Father and Mother’s knowledge of plants is extensive; game must be hunted and butchered; and they have to come up with all kinds of contraptions to facilitate living. 

Will the family spend the rest of their lives in this island paradise? Will someone come looking for them? And if they are found, will they stay or go back to civilization?

“The Swiss Family Robinson” was first published in 1812 – in German! It’s said that Wyss was inspired by Daniel Defoe’s story “Robinson Crusoe” (1719). It’s a logical assumption, because Wyss mentions “Robinson Crusoe” in “The Swiss Family Robinson.”

It’s also said that Wyss wrote “The Swiss Family Robinson” to teach his own children, just as the father in the story instructs his sons. 

The language is a bit formal, but for a book written in the early 1800s, I think it’s still very readable. I read a Dell Publishing Co. edition from 1960, so maybe it was the translation or editing, but I didn’t have a problem following the prose. I do think readers will benefit from looking up some of the more unfamiliar words, like onager. Some names for animals have changed a bit over the years.

I think boys, especially, will enjoy this tale. It has exotic wildlife and all kinds of hands-on activities to spark their imaginations. I would advise taking some time to ask knowledgeable adults or look up some of the information because techniques might have changed some in two centuries. 

I wouldn’t take all of the information as actual fact. As an example, I’m pretty sure that all of these animals and plants would not exist in the same place in the world, let alone all on one island. 

I think the biggest take-away from “The Swiss Family Robinson” is the theme of a family working together: a husband and wife interacting with wisdom and respect, children who are learning new life skills every day. And the whole family meets their challenge head-on with a can-do attitude and hard work. No one whines or slacks off; everyone contributes as best they can for the good of the family. It’s a lesson a lot of modern families should learn. 

“The Swiss Family Robinson” has held people’s imaginations for two centuries. It was translated into English two years after publication and there have been different versions published, some adding names or characters, and sequels by other authors. “The Castaways of the Flag” is a sequel to “The Swiss Family Robinson” but it was written by Jules Verne (he of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and other novels), who was a fan of Wyss’ original novel.

“The Swiss Family Robinson” was made into a movie in 1960, starring John Mills as the father, Dorothy McGuire as the mother and James MacArthur as Fritz. A more modern version was the “Wilderness (or Mountain) Family Robinson” movie trilogy from the 1970’s, which were set in Colorado. There have been various television versions, as well. 

For more information, search “The Swiss Family Robinson” or Johann Wyss (pronounced like “vice.”) There are other books along the same vein. “Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe and has sequels. “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (1870) and its sequel “The Mysterious Island” (1875), were both written by Jules Verne, who also penned many other adventure novels. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1844) was written by Alexandre Dumas, who also wrote “The Three Musketeers.” “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island” (both 1886) were written by Robert Louis Stevenson. “Catriona” (1893) is Stevenson’s sequel to “Kidnapped.” “Captains Courageous” (1897) was written by Rudyard Kipling, who wrote “Kim” and “The Jungle Book.” 

For something more modern, try “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1932) by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall and based on the real mutiny in 1789. “Johnny Tremain” (1943) was written by Esther Forbes and takes place during the American Revolution. The Horatio Hornblower series takes place in the late 1700s but was written from the 1930s through 1960s by C.S. Forester. And pretty much anything by Jack London (1876-1916): “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and “The Sea Wolf,” just to name three.

There are lots of other adventure stories, both old and new. Check out “50 Adventure Novels You Have to Read Before You Die” on barnesandnoble.com for ideas. If you want more options, ask at your local library.

Always keep reading.

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