Book Review: R is for Robinson

Out of the pile of classic novels that I have accumulated over the years, I recently pulled an unread copy of Johann Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson that, according to the book’s ink-stamped inside cover, I acquired over two decades ago from my junior high school library. Fortunately, like the Robinson family, it was a castaway, not a potentially record-breaking overdue book.

For those who may have been similarly out of touch of civilization for an extended period of time, The Swiss Family Robinson chronicles the story of a family shipwrecked on a deserted island, their survivability dependent on only their wits and items salvaged from their crippled ship. The most famous aspect of their adventure is immortalized by Disneyland’s recreation of a treehouse-style domicile created high among the branches of a fig-producing mangrove, complete with staircases, plumbing, and rescued furniture. However, their multiple residences grow far more sophisticated over time.

Author’s Note:  The 1962-built Swiss Family Treehouse was “immortalized” until 1999 when Disneyland replaced it with Tarzan’s Treehouse. For now, you can still view the Ronbinsons’ tree in Magic Kingdom, Euro Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland.

The language was modern back in the early 19th-century when first penned by Johann Wyss but is still easily readable today. Throughout the fast-paced novel I was continuously distracted by the unlikely plethora of wildlife available for domestication and use by the Robinson family. As each chapter unfolded the incredible list grew: flamingos, penguins, agouti, lobster, monkeys, jackals, sea turtles, porcupines, ostriches, lions, elephants, kangaroos, walrus, buffalo, whales, boa constrictors, and bears. Varied, too, were the native plants: coconuts, calabash, sugar cane, wild figs, pineapple, rubber trees, sago palms, terebinth, American fir trees, and cotton trees. What astounding luck to be stranded on a desert island with such a well-stocked supermarket of resources! The patriarch of the new colony dubbed “New Switzerland” was also a MacGyver from a prior century, able to furnish rubber boots, create indoor plumbing, tame wild animals, positively identify unusual flora and fauna and their useful properties, create a loom, and manufacture soap and candles.

I was quite surprised by the ending, its elegant simplicity never occurring to me while I enjoyed the meat of the book. A lover of animals myself, often I wondered what would become of the now-domesticated beasts that provided the Robinsons with milk, eggs, labor, and friendship, and I was pleased that the solution provided by Wyss allowed full closure while still ensuring the safety and well-being of the herds of animals then roaming the island.

It is easy to understand after reading this fabulous tale why Johann Wyss is better known for writing The Swiss Family Robinson then he was for creating the Swiss national anthem. If you haven’t read the Robinson family saga yet, pick up a copy.

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