Elise Hamilton's Reviews > The Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
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's review
May 05, 2012

did not like it
Read in April, 2012

OK, I'm going to spend a bit of time explaining why I gave one star to a book that is a classic.

My grandson is approaching his seventh birthday. He loves to read and be read to, and enjoys adventure books. So, remembering with fondness the adventures and inventiveness of the family members in the Swiss Family Robinson story, I thought he might enjoy it. However, I read it in grade school, therefore had only impressions of it; I didn't remember actual details. When I went to Amazon to buy it, I found---as one would expect of a book that was first published nearly 200 years ago---that there were many editions. Many of those editions are abridged and even rewritten. Several reviewers were dismayed to find that the edition they bought didn't contain the language and feeling of the original, so I searched out and purchased a translation from the original that claimed to have been faithful to it. (NOTE: The edition that might show up with this review is NOT the edition I purchased. I didn't see the edition I bought in the list of those shown via a Goodreads search.)

Fearing that the writing style, words, and sentence structure might be too difficult for Graham to enjoy (and because I wanted to remind myself of the story's details), I read the book before determining whether to pass it on to him. I'm glad I did.

While I don't think that American children of this day and age should be "sheltered" from such old texts, I did find that the writing would, at least at the age of six or seven, be too difficult for him. It contains many words that are rarely used today, or that would require too much dictionary-looking-up for him. This wouldn't, by itself, be a reason to discard the book. When he gets just a little bit older, his parents could read it to him so that they can translate words with which he's unfamiliar.

However, one of the two big things that I'd forgotten about the story is its very heavy religious sub-text. There is much thanking of and worshiping God at every event in the story, and much attribution to God rather than good luck and one's own ingenuity and knowledge. This would be confusing to a boy whose parents and friends have no religious affiliation---thus God as provider of all never comes up in conversation. But this, too, could be explained by his parents, if there wasn't an even bigger problem with the book.

The really big thing I'd forgotten---and which likely, due to the time I read it (in the 50's), went completely over my head since it would have been so accepted a way of life. They kill every animal they encounter! There is no marveling that they have come across a rare animal, and one that they only know through what they read in a book. Their immediate action is to club it to death, or to shoot it. They have plenty of food, so there's no reason for them to kill the animals. Again, when Graham is a little older, his parents can explain and comment on what would now be a completely unacceptable way to behave. In fact, it could present a "teaching moment". BUT...

It's also never really explained to the reader how this family lands on an island that contains the impossible diversity of wildlife they encounter. These include, for example, a kangaroo, a penguin, a flamingo, a rhinoceros, a black bear. They also easily tame (domesticate) various animals---which is completely impossible, thus not believable. One can happily suspend belief when a story is clearly written as science fiction, but this book is written as an actual happening, therefore an adult reader in the 21st century or even a grade-schooler (at least one that's not home-schooled by creationist parents) would not be able to get past the incredulity they would feel at almost every page.

This book will not be passed on to Graham. There must be wonderful, more contemporary and believable adventure books that are available. To me, Swiss Family Robinson has not withstood the test of time very well.

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