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Swiss Family Robinson

Picking up on my series of books I read and re-read and loved as a child (I discussed Jane-Emily the other day, and The Borrowers and Little Men earlier this week), today I bring you The Swiss Family Robinson. It's not pirates, but as they lived in fear of pirates and on a deserted island, I thought the icon was close enough. I cannot share with you a copy of the cover on my book, although I can say that it dates from very early in the 1900s, and was published by Ward, Lock & Co. I rather suspect mine to be a British edition, since the "catalogue" information in the far back gives prices in shillings and pence. The copy I have (complete with water damage, worn corners and a bit of binding tape) has a red cover, and contains "about two hundred illustrations", and is from a translation done by H. Frith "from the best original Editions". It's not a highly abridged version, since it totals 556 pages, and not all (or even most) of the illustrations are of the full-page sort. It was given to me by my Gramma when I was about 8 years old, and was at one time owned by a woman named Laura Walters, who may have been a distant cousin on my grandmother's mother's side (who came from England).

I believe I read this book only four times or so, all of them between the ages of 8 and 12, but I can still tell you quite a bit about the plot. And not just because I saw the movie as part of The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night television, and not during the 1969 re-release (although it's quite possible that I saw the movie at a drive-in in 1969 when I was 5, although I don't remember it if so). It is an adventure story of the finest kind: Like Robinson Crusoe (hence the use of the word "Robinson" in the title, by the way, as I've just now learnt. The family's name is something Swiss, of course, and the "Robinson" was added to the original title to make clear that it's an adventure in the same vein as Robinson Crusoe). It tells the story of a family (consisting of parents and four boys) who are shipwrecked off the coast of an island and abandoned by the sailors on the ship. They use ingenuity and some handy supplies to get themselves, a bunch of goods and provisions and weapons, and some shipwrecked animals ashore, where they build what has to be the world's coolest house: a tree house consisting of various levels, with ingenious ways of getting up and down to it. They manage to survive and live fairly well, establishing plantations, taming some wild animals, riding on an ostrich and more. And one day, a stranger appears, who (spoiler!) turns out to be a girl! Oh, the squee-ish joy of that!! Eventually, a ship turns up, and two of the boys head off to Europe (with the girl), and the parents and two other boys stay on the island, which is to become some sort of colony. Or something.

And now, to think about the elements that attracted me to the text, which are wound up with the things I recall liking about the book:

1. Adventure!
2. Wilderness skills, including building really excellent treehouses and houses on stilts and rafts and the like.
3. Kids were allowed to make their own mistakes and were allowed to do all sorts of stuff that I either liked to do or thought sounded like fun: climbing rocks and trees (did it), taming wild animals (it sounded like a good idea), riding on ostriches and taming jackals, etc.
4. No orphans, although in a way, being stranded for pretty much all of the book makes it kind of as if the entire family had been stranded.
5. The stranded girl was smart, and had survived on her own for a while before she and the family met up - she made some of her own equipment, figured out how to build a fire, and more. I loved that she had been getting by on her own and wasn't just a victim. Same goes for the mother, who soldiered on and, if memory serves, was the one who said "Hey - I want to stay here on the island, to hell with going back home to Europe." Only she didn't say "hell", of course, because they were missionaries or at least morally instructive adults.

What this had in common with the other three books, Jane-Emily the other day, and The Borrowers and Little Men:

1. As in all other three books, I didn't feel like the book talked down to kids. That said, I now know that it was purposefully didactic and designed to teach "lessons" to children. But maybe the fact that it was originally written in the early 1800s, before the notions of "childhood" had really been developed, makes the difference. (Probably also the case with Little Men, come to think of it, which, though American, was written during Victorian times.)

2. As in all other three books, it included the bad as well as the good, including some rather disturbing/distressing passages dealing with the killing and/or deaths of animals, some of which may have been "pets".

3. Similar to The Borrowers, the book had ADVENTURE! There was building and climbing and swimming and hunting and fishing and hiding and canoeing and shooting off cannons and more.

4. A related, but separate, issue, and one in common with The Borrowers (although I didn't list it there) and Jane-Emily was: SUSPENSE! Would they die in the storm? Would they die trying to get to shore? Would they die once they got to the island? (Okay, I'll move on from the "will they die?" line of questioning.) Would they be able to find food? Evade predators and pirates? Would they be rescued? How did the girl arrive on the island?

5. In keeping with The Borrowers, it includes "living in a secret way or place." Man, did I want a secret hideout when I was a kid. Still do, in fact. I envy cynthialord her writer's cabin, and if I only had an acre or so out back and a ton of money, I'd commission my very own hobbit hole. Alas, I lack land and funds.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:25 am (UTC)
I read this when I was young, too. Don't know if I read it multiple times but remember loving the tree house. That was the main attraction for me.


Several years ago I tried this as a read-aloud to my boys and we had to quit. It felt as if every couple pages one of the kids was blasting an animal in the bushes. It was pretty upsetting for all of us. The weird thing is I've always been extremely sensitive to this kind of stuff and I don't have memories of reading those passages when little. Maybe I was blinded by that tree house!
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:40 am (UTC)
Could be. It could also be that you read a slightly different version of the text. If you look at the ones currently for sale, they range from about 51 pages to 150 pages to 200+ pages to 350+ pages. Some of those shorter versions have obviously left stuff out. Like the killing of wolves, which I do remember being distressed about.
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:56 am (UTC)
Loving these posts... I was SO into secret hideaways and also survival stories as a kid... I had this whole idea that I could make things out of plants in the woods and construct a shelter and all sorts of things--this, considering I was the most un-athletic, un-outdoorsy kid imaginable. I nearly ruined one of my mom's high school autograph books when I left it in my outside "fort" for some reason. In pure kid fashion, instead of real survival supplies, I left a shoebox with the most random stuff imaginable out there--stuff like a wooden top or a handkerchief, or my poor mom's autograph book which got all water damaged, luckily she wasn't that attached to it.
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
I am certain that my attempts at creating a secret hideaway in the woods (with my brother) when we were young were similarly, um, lame. I think we moved some sticks to suggest the shape of a square, and went no further than that.
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
as sad as it is to say, I can't recall reading very many books at all as a kid. I read all of the Three Investigators series in middle school, but I hated the so-called "classics" we were forced to read in school. In fact, I refused to read A Scarlet Letter as a junior in high school, much to the detriment of my grade that semester.
Sep. 7th, 2008 03:21 pm (UTC)
I wonder if you read books and just don't remember them, or if you didn't actually read much. Lots of kids don't read all that much, and lots of kids don't remember a lot of stuff from when they were young, so it could go either way.

I didn't mind The Scarlet Letter, although it raised my tease-ability factor (my maiden name was Ramsdell, and the minister in the book is Dimsdale, so you can sort that out quickly). I didn't love The Red Badge of Courage, however.
Sep. 7th, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
I honestly didn't read much, especially outside of what was assigned in school. And I didn't enjoy what was assigned in school.
Sep. 7th, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC)
That is because of all the boring books by dead white guys assigned in school when we were kids. Although, come to think of it, a lot of boring dead people's books are still being assigned to S, who is taking honors English.

It's sad, really, when there's so much great contemporary stuff available.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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