Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss

About a month ago I thought, "You know what book I could read to my kids that they would love? The Swiss Family Robinson, that's what! Plus, since it's in the public domain, it'll be super cheap!" Yes, I consider things like that. And that's why I have no friends.

The problem with old-timey books, though, is that they've often been edited and translated a billion different times in a billion different ways, so who's to say what actually constitutes reading The Swiss Family Robinson? I especially hate the children's editions or even the abridged adult editions that don't bother to tell you that they're not the complete text. At the bookstore I looked at two different versions of The Swiss Family Robinson; one started with "Already the tempest had continued six days," while the other began, "When the family awoke the storm still raged." Those are quite different sentences. Did the original German contain the word "sechs" or didn't it? How much of what is offered as the work of Johann Wyss is really his book and how much is the "work" of a copyhouse underling who knows some German?

Anyway, I got a copy of the book from the local library and started reading it to my kids. More than any other old-timey book we've read together, this one was completely inaccessible to them because of vocabulary. After a chapter or two I gave them leave, and I finished the book on my own.

For being a classic, there's a lot about this book to not like. Firstly, the title is horrible. It seems like the family name is Robinson, which isn't a Swiss name at all. The idea is that they are a Swiss family in the role of Robinson Crusoe. There has to be a better way to convey that. And don't tell me, "Well, it's been 200 years and they can't change the title now." They feel free to change everything else about this book with no warning; why not change the title while they're at it? Secondly, I was surprised by how often the family's response to seeing a new animal is to try to kill it. They start their stay by killing some attacking jackals, and who can't support that? But later they kill buffalo, kangaroo, lion, tiger, crocodile, boar, shark, and a thousand different types of small birds. Thirdly, it got a little tiresome how every chapter ended with, "And then we said our prayers and had a good night's sleep," and how the father happened to know a little something about every possible trade. Wheelwright needed? No problem, I happened to pass the time in my youth tinkering with the tools of the trade. I understand that without the plot device many of the chapters would read, "Then my family thought of something else we'd like to have, but since I didn't know how to make it, we just ate some more fish," but still. Couldn't one of the books they took from the shipwreck have been an instruction manual for various trades? Fourthly, with the preeminent image in most people's minds being the treehouse, they actually only live in it for about one year of the 10 they spend deserted. They spend most of their time in a salt cave. Not quite as romantic.

Speaking of romance, at the end of the book they discover a shipwrecked girl in her late teens. With four boys over the age of 18, you might figure there'd be some interest in the girl, but instead she's adopted by the family as a sister. Because, hey, you can find a hot European babe any time you want to around those parts. The place is lousy with them. To use a Wodehousism, you can't heave a brick without hitting one.

Lastly, either Wyss did a poor job making sure he's identified all his characters or the phantom copyeditor of a public domain novel has struck again, for there are many times that the narrator refers to an animal by name as if that name had been introduced previously. As much as I'd like to say, "I read The Swiss Family Robinson," who knows if I did or not?

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

1 comment:

  1. It is so funny that you posted this. We pretty much follow your giant inflatable monkey ratings to determine what we will read aloud next. For instance, we tackled the Winnie the Pooh books on your recommendation and loved them. We decided to branch out on our own here recently and I thought I'd read S.F.R. to the kids since I remember loving it when I read it in high school. I had the same experience you described. Barnes & Noble carried 3 or 4 different versions, none of which claimed to be abridged although they differ in pages by as much as 250. This same problem has led to my son thinking he's reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He's in 2nd grade, people. But his book doesn't mention that it's been abridged and cleaned up for the modern texting set.

    I picked up SFR and flipped open to a chapter and read aloud only to realize that I'd have to translate each of the words in the first sentence for my kids to even begin to have a clue as to what I was talking about. Hmm... perhaps in a few years.

    Lesson learned. We'll wait for you to tell us what to read next. You are Oprah in our eyes.