The 19th century was a time of transmigration for Europe. Thousands left continental shores for lands abroad, South America, Australia, the US, and beyond. Ship travel the only method to access most of these destinations, the sea wasn’t always forgiving. Not a few were sent to a watery grave, others crashing on strange shores. Johann David Wyss’ 1812 The Swiss Family Robinson is the fantasy-esque tale of one such shipwreck.
The novel opens with said wreck. The only remaining survivors a family of six, the group struggles to get ashore and find their bearings. A father, mother, and four sons, what follows is a narrative recounting exotic survival in the wilds. The group slowly explores the island they now call home. They build better and safer homes, fight for life with food and predators, and towards the end of the novel, have an encounter they’d never dreamed of. Adventure in the purest form, getting caught up in the family’s escapades of everyday life is a joy.
Any firm categorization of Swiss Family Robinson as fantasy would be less than tenable. There is merely a veneer of the overly-exotic spread thin over the wholly realist foundations of the book. Massive snakes, onagers, ostriches, monkeys, gum trees, wild fruits—all manner of the Earth’s flora and fauna—inhabit the island the family come to call home—Madagascar squared. Google unavailable to check facts, readers of Wyss’ time could indulge in the otherworldly manner of the family’s survival in fully escapist fashion and dream of their own overseas trip—or be in horror of the wilds, depending on perspective. Suffice to say, the less-than-realist elements of the story make the family’s adventures all the more engaging.
And adventure Swiss Family Robinson is. No single element other than survival motivating the plot, the book is essentially divided into the phases of their adaptation to island life—from the very beginning when they have only the supplies of the broken ship to their contact with the outside at the end. And it is the steps, this progression from wild to domestic, which grounds the story not only in characters, but brings to life the interest and joy of discovering new things. Daring Jack, strong Fritz, cultured Ernest, shy but helpful Franz, stoic Father, and resourceful, dependable mother, what child hasn’t dreamed of deserted tropical islands for themselves? To build your own treehouse complete with bedrooms, kitchen, library, etc.? To have your own pet orangutan? Or to construct contraptions of wood and leaf to catch animals or sift grain? Perhaps for the younger more than the older, the novel is a treat of the imagination that brings the inner child to life.
In the end, Swiss Family Robinson is an old-fashioned shipwreck adventure with a child’s heart. One of the first and best examples of the “stranded on a desert island” sub-genre, Wyss endears readers through warm characters and patient storytelling of exotic survival. The language in older English translations perhaps troublesome for some modern readers, it may be worth investigating whether a more contemporary version has become available. Still capable of inspiring dreams of faraway lands, Wyss’ is a tale less pointed than the propaganda which inspired the title.