“The Swiss Family Robinson” Review

300px-SwissFamilyRobinson2The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss, was originally published in 1812. The title refers not to a Swiss family by the name of Robinson but rather to a Swiss family forced by circumstance to live much like the well-known Robinson Crusoe. This tale, and a great number of other stories of survival on deserted islands after shipwreck, were immensely popular in the period. Most detailed the lives of solitary figures or duos. The Swiss Family Robinson added a new twist by relating the account of a family and how they work together to make the most of a difficult ordeal.

For the homeschooler, this is a wonderful book to be read by a fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-grade reader. While much of the detail does not hold up to close scrutiny to our contemporary expectations for realism — this island must be huge to sport just about every known species of animal, tree, and fruit! — it is a compelling tale of adventure for a younger reader. It has at times a very challenging vocabulary, especially with its archaic terminology and antiquated usage of terms still familiar. (I consulted a dictionary more than a few times myself. Being able to look things up on a Kindle e-reader is very handy!) The dense, complex sentence structure is typical of the era, and paragraphs that span more than a single page are common. This can cause the story to bog down periodically, but isn’t perseverance also part of the curriculum? Due to its publication date, full electronic versions are available for free (or nearly so) from many sources.

As with the majority of the books we are having the boys read in these formative years, The Swiss Family Robinson does not disappoint when it comes to demonstrating Biblical values. Of many such passages, one that stood out in particular to me is from the end of the book’s first half:

We had thus made great steps towards civilization; and, though condemned, perhaps, to pass our lives alone on this unknown shore, we might yet be happy. We were placed in the midst of abundance. We were active, industrious, and content; blessed with health, and united by affection, our minds seemed to enlarge and improve every day. We saw around us on every side traces of the Divine wisdom and beneficence; and our hearts overflowed with love and veneration for that Almighty hand which had so miraculously saved, and continued to protect us. I humbly trusted in Him, either to restore us to the world, or send some beings to join us in this beloved island, where for two years we had seen no trace of man. To Him we committed our fate. We were happy and tranquil, looking with resignation to the future.

It is not only the boys who benefit from their reading of these great classics! What an inspiration for me as well. I hope to echo this same sentiment in my much easier situation. What else is life lived in Christ’s victory over sin and death, if it is not being content, at peace, and joy-filled regardless of our outward circumstances?

As might be expected in a work of this vintage, there is a bit of European snobbery and ethnocentrism when the family does eventually encounter the local “savages”. But even this is cut through with brotherly kindness and love in many different ways. If nothing else, it will make for excellent dinner conversation! There is also an unbiblical tendency for the principle characters to defer to the “black man” (the tale’s “official” missionary) in matters of spiritual instruction and practice, but this attitude is endemic to the period as well. This, too, can be a great topic of conversation with children, as we teach them what our mission is as citizens of God’s Kingdom and what the biblical perspective is on the traditional clergy/laity divide.

All in all, highly recommended!

Jeff Herron

Homeschooling dad of two boys. Husband of one terrific woman. Disciple of and disciple maker for Jesus. My cup runneth over!