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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Swiss Family Robinson (The)
by Johann Wyss
Age Range: 12+
A Swiss Pastor, his wife and his four sons are shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. Luckily, they are inventive and optimistic and soon settle into their new home to have many island adventures with exotic surroundings, wild animals and unknown plants and fruits. Johann Wyss’s novel is part story, part survival guide and thoroughly exciting as the family learns to thrive and survive in their island paradise.
Wyss’s story gets off to a slow start but do not let this put you off. The story settles down after a chapter, once the family are established on the island and after a couple of pages, readers will fall into the rhythm of Wyss’s narration, which sometimes favours long sentences which might seem a little awkward to the modern ear. Perseverance, however, will quickly see readers captivated and lost in a world where it is possible to tame and ride wild animals, discover and eat new foods every day and invent new contraptions out of the most unusual materials. Wyss also litters the story with survival and wilderness tips, making him a sort of nineteenth-century Ray Mears and a clever educator. All of the outdoors lessons he demonstrates through the Robinsons will be passed to the reader as well. These skills are fascinating and are the sorts of things children still enjoy learning about today; something attested by the book still being in print despite first being published in 1812.
Whilst the story itself dates well, a word must also be said for what is perhaps the most widely used English translation and the man who translated it. Although it is now over one hundred years old, modern editions still use the 1879 William G. H Kingston translation, in particular Puffin Classics, who use the complete, unabridged text in their excellent 2004 edition. Aside from the occasional archaic sentence, Kingston’s translation reads very well, and is fast-paced, exciting and funny, again demonstrating why the story is still so popular today.
In essence, The Swiss Family Robinson is a true classic. It is interesting and perhaps even refreshingly different from many modern books which feature so much technology. Occasionally, it is a little hard to keep track of the passage of time in the story and some children may not enjoy certain aspects, such as the depictions of the crueller side of nature (the Robinsons describe hunting, catching and killing rather a lot of animals for food, clothes and utensils, pets or beasts of burden), but there is so much to marvel at and enjoy. This is still a good, fun read that has the power to draw us in and immerse in a totally different world and it is still exciting over 200 years after Wyss originally published the stories he wrote to amuse his children.
Abby Phillips (2012)