The Swiss Family Robinson was one of my favourite books growing up. I received an abridged version of this book for my 10th birthday and it was love at first read. For a 10- year-old girl with a rather active imagination, the story of a shipwrecked family living on a deserted island with nobody but each other for company was extremely thrilling and romantic. The family comprises Father Robinson (who is never named in the book), Mother Robinson (Elizabeth), and their four sons—Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz.
I read the book (which was first published in 1812) many times over the years and never failed to marvel at the resourcefulness of the hard- working Swiss Family Robinson who lived off the land, sea and air, or delight in their discoveries, inventions and adventures. In a way, it was one of my comfort books !
So when I recently found an unabridged, second-hand version of the book, I was delighted. It was a much-anticipated read and I was looking forward to reading all the details that an abridged version always leaves out. And the unabridged version of The Swiss Family Robinson did not disappoint on that score—the characters were fleshed out, the various adventures, discoveries and inventions were described in more detail, etc.
But when I finished the book, I did not have the happy, nice feeling that I usually did when I read this book. In fact, I was left feeling uneasy and confused. For example, the geographically impossible variety of fauna (agouti, pangolins, porcupines, capybaras, camels, monkeys, lions, leopards, tigers, bears, onagers, boars, tapirs, kangaroos, elephants, giraffes, jackals, walruses, platypuses, koalas, wombats, dingos, zebras, bison, rhinos, hippos, and moose) and flora (including rubber plant, coconut, sago, fir trees, and sugarcane, among others) was dizzying in detail.
The characters themselves revealed very different personalities than what I knew and remembered of them. For example, strong and brave Fritz turned out to be ruthless; quiet and thoughtful Ernest turned out to be vain; bold Jack turned out to be cruel; and nice, likable Franz turned out to be a real mama’s boy. As for Father Robinson, whose calm and measured guidance was comforting, he turned out to be horribly preachy and moralistic.
But what upset me the most was the detailed description and reasons given for killing animals for food or for defense. For instance:
… he [Jack] returned to the charge, suddenly threw his garment over the creature [land crab] , wrapped it well around it, and pummeled it with all the strength of his fists…
“Well, this is an ugly rascal,” cried Jack. “If he had not been so hideous, I should not have dealt so severely with him…”
Father Robinson is only amused by this and laughs at Jack and his “antics” during his killing of the crab as well as during another time when Jack kills a porcupine.
…little Jack stepped close up to it, with a pocket pistol in his hand, and shot it dead, making sure of it by a couple of heavy raps on the head.
While I could have overlooked the indeed astonishing variety of flora and fauna or even the newly discovered character traits of Robinson family members, I could not stomach the description of killing (mostly) defenceless animals, fish and birds. In fact, I feel that the book describes the acts in loving detail. By the time I finished reading the book, I actually felt quite sick. I put the book away with a vow of giving it away at first opportunity.
As I write this post, I realise that I have probably made the mistake of analysing what is essentially a children’s book through very adult eyes, something that I have often accused those who consider Tom & Jerry cartoons (which I love) as violent and inappropriate for children. But then, I reason that I wouldn’t want anyone, particularly a child, to read that it is okay to kill if the animal/victim is ugly.
While researching for some background information on The Swiss Family Robinson, I found out that there are many translations and versions of the original. According to Wikipedia, “with all the expansions and contractions over the past two centuries (this includes a long history of abridgments, condensations, Christianizing, and Disney products), Wyss’s original narrative has long since been obscured.” Therefore, I am quite willing to concede that the problem may well lie with the particular unabridged version of the book that I have. But whatever the case, The Swiss Family Robinson is no longer on my list of favourite books, and is also not on the list of books I use to gift children.
P.S.: Have you ever loved a book as a child only to dislike it as an adult? I would love to hear about it.