Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Mark Twain and the Swiss Family Robinson

May’s theme for the classics was “Adventure”, as I paired Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain with The Swiss Family Robinson.     Twain’s former is  a collection more than a monograph, as he presents together his recollections of growing up on the Mississippi as a pilot in training,  parts of Huckleberry Finn, and a telling of a late re-visit to the river when he was an accomplished author.  It’s certainly educational, especially when read in conjunction with a tool like GoogleMaps.    Commenting on the mercurial nature of the river, Twain explains how often the river shifts its course, and points out that one town (“Delta”) which used to be a harbor town now sits inland.    Delta is now a ghost town, but a nearby oxbow lake  shows where the river once ran. (Just for curiosity, I traced the Mississippi all the way from the gulf to its headwaters in search of similar cases. I had to stop counting the oxbow lakes after a while.)    The demands placed upon pilots to memorize the river, its daily variances, its every crossing – are almost too much to believe, but Twain insists that it was so. By the time he visits as an adult, the pilot’s job has been made much easier through bouys and signals and the like. The second part is more forgettable.

On to The Swiss Family Robinson. Believe it or not, I have never seen any movies based on this, or read the book; beyond a family crashing on a remote island and building a treehouse, I knew nothing of the subject.    The book was penned in response to the popularity of Robinson Caruso,  hence the name; it follows a family  of survivors rather than a solitary outcast.  Although the family will spend over ten years on the island  before a ship encounters them, they’re extraordinarily lucky.  Not only were they able to salvage the holdings of a colony ship for their own use, but the “island” they land has such a staggering abundance of improbable life  (fauna from other hemispheres, even) that after a while one must conclude it was the private game reserve of some distant millionaire.    This south seas island does not merely have the usual suspects like colorful birds, monkeys, and turtles.  It has pretty much everything but a moose, and those in the mood for venison can just go after some of the buffalo.  The island is similarly well set for fauna and other resources, between the salt caves, the India rubber trees, and the potato fields. Even more lucky for the family, their father is a walking encyclopedia on animals and engineering, so not when  he's not building bridges, winches and the like, he’s  telling the children all about the wildlife.    It’s very informative, and would be enormously fun to read as a kid, I think,  but the amount  of creatures running around defies belief. 


  1. Swiss Family WAS enormously fun to read when i was a kid... and the Twain is one of my favorite books of all time; i must have read it three times, unusual for me...

  2. LOL - On Swiss Family.... I missed out on a lot of Children's classics growing up and intend reading most of them at some point. Maybe I'll give SFR a miss!

  3. The Disney version of Swiss Family Robinson is pretty fun to watch. I have to say, I didn't really like the book that much. Jules Verne had the same problem with his desert island scenarios - his "survivors" were brilliant engineers and they always seemed to find what they needed!


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