by Johann David Wyss
I must have watched the 1960 Disney movie of this book dozens of times when I was growing up. Obviously that colored my reading and when I came across some major differences between the book and movie I was a little surprised. They left out one of the sons, there is no showdown with pirates, and the character of Roberta was completely created for the film. Regardless, The book is a lot of fun, but it’s a very different story from the one I was expecting.
The Robinson family is shipwrecked on their way to Australia. They survive and begin to build a life for themselves on the island that they christen “New Switzerland”. Over the course of a few years the family builds a home and learns how to make do in their new world. In addition to the parents, there are four boys: Sons: Fritz, Ernest, Jack, and Franz.
The family’s father teaches survival lessons, like hunting and gathering, but he also teaches his children how to live well. He has a ridiculously diverse knowledge of plants and animals, which at times seemed a bit unlikely. I love that even though they are stranded on a desert island, they work so hard to continue to learn. They are all practicing different languages, studying new sciences, exploring, getting exercise. Their priorities didn’t change. Their father still has the whole family work together and treat each other with civility and respect. He instructs them in everything and they support and encourage one another.
I kept wondering what would happen to a family today if they were stranded and couldn’t use their cell phones. Would they even know how to open a coconut? I kept thinking of Lost, the modern day equivalent of this adventure in some ways. I think a lot of people wouldn’t know how to survive for more than a few days.
There’s one terrifying scene that will stay with me for a long time, it includes a donkey and boa constrictor and that’s all I’ll say. A few of the other scenes where animals are killed aren’t pleasant to read, but they certainly aren’t gratuitous. Each one takes place because they need to survive, not for sport.
BOTTOM LINE: I think this one would be perfect to read aloud to boys. It’s all adventure and learning how to hunt and survive, but the moral lessons about treating animals fairly and hard work give it an added weight.